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Viscum album


Viscum album is a species of mistletoe in the family Santalaceae, commonly known as European mistletoe, common mistletoe or simply as mistletoe (Old English mistle).<ref name=Zuber2004>D. Zuber (2004). Biological flora of Central Europe: Viscum album L. Flora 199, 181-203</ref> It is native to Europe and western and southern Asia.

Viscum album is a hemiparasite on several species of trees, from which it draws water and nutrients. It has a significant role in European mythology, legends, and customs. In modern times, it is commonly featured in Christmas decoration and symbology. (V. album is found only rarely in North America, as an introduced species; its cultural roles are usually fulfilled by the similar native species Phoradendron leucarpum.)


It is a hemi-parasitic shrub, which grows on the stems of other trees. It has stems Template:Convert long with dichotomous branching. The leaves are in opposite pairs, strap-shaped, entire, leathery textured, Template:Convert long, Template:Convert broad and are a yellowish-green in colour. This species is dioecious and the insect-pollinated flowers are inconspicuous, yellowish-green, Template:Convert diameter. The fruit is a white or yellow berry containing one (very rarely several) seed embedded in the very sticky, glutinous fruit pulp.

It is commonly found in the crowns of broad-leaved trees, particularly apple, lime (linden), hawthorn and poplar.<ref>Tree News, Spring/Summer 2005, Publisher Felix Press Template:Webarchive</ref>


The mistletoe was one of the many species originally described by Linnaeus. Its species name is the Latin adjective albus "white". It and the other members of the genus Viscum were originally classified in the mistletoe family Viscaceae, but this family has since been sunk into the larger family Santalaceae.


Several subspecies are commonly accepted.<ref name=FloraEuropea>Flora Europaea: Viscum album</ref><ref name=FloraChina>Flora of China: Viscum album Template:Webarchive</ref><ref name=Bean>Bean, W. J. (1980). Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles 8th ed. 4: 725-726. Template:ISBN</ref><ref name=Blamey>Blamey, M. & Grey-Wilson, C. (1989). The Illustrated Flora of Britain and Northern Europe. Hodder & Stoughton. Template:ISBN.</ref> They differ in fruit colour, leaf shape and size, and most obviously in the host trees utilised.

</ref> Fruit white; leaves short. On Pinus brutia.


European mistletoe is potentially fatal, in a concentrated form, and people can become seriously ill from eating the berries.<ref>Poison Control</ref>

The toxic lectin viscumin has been isolated from Viscum album.<ref name="pmid7142144">Template:Cite journal</ref> Viscumin is a cytotoxic protein (ribosome inactivating protein, or RIP) that binds to galactose residues of cell surface glycoproteins and may be internalised by endocytosis.<ref name="pmid7142145">Template:Cite journal</ref> Viscumin strongly inhibits protein synthesis by inactivating the 60 S ribosomal subunit. The structure of this protein is very similar to other RIPs, showing the most resemblance to ricin and abrin.<ref name=pmid7142144/><ref name=pmid7142145/>

Some birds have immunity to the poison and enjoy the berries, especially the mistle thrush which is named for its favourite food.

Culture, folklore and mythology

European mistletoe has always attracted popular interest and has been surrounded by a number of myths and legends. In cultures across pre-Christian Europe, mistletoe was seen as a representation of divine male essence (and thus romance, fertility and vitality). It still plays a role in the folklore of some countries.

Celtic world

According to Pliny the Elder, the Celts considered it a remedy for barrenness in animals and an antidote to poison, and sacred when growing on oak trees (where it is rare). He describes a Celtic ritual sacrifice and banquet at which a druid dressed in white would climb an oak tree to collect mistletoe using a golden sickle.<ref>Template:Cite book</ref> (This legend is often referred to in the popular Asterix comic books, where the druid Getafix is often seen collecting mistletoe with a sickle.)

Modern druids may use the Native American Phoradendron leucarpum as well as other mistletoe species.<ref>Taylor, Pat & Tony, The Henge of Keltria Book of Ritual, 4th ed. 1997"</ref>


Each arrow overshot his head (1902) by Elmer Boyd Smith, depicting the blind god Höðr shooting his brother, the god Baldr, with a mistletoe arrow

According to the 13th century Prose Edda, the goddess Frigg had all living and inanimate things swear an oath not to hurt her son Baldr. At a gathering, other gods tested the oath by hurling stones, arrows and fire at him, all in vain. But Frigg had not demanded the oath from mistletoe, because "it seemed too young" for that.<ref name=FAULKES48-49>Faulkes, Anthony (Trans.) (1995). Edda, pages 48–49. Everyman. Template:ISBN</ref> By a scheming of Loki, Baldr's brother, the blind god Höðr made an arrow from mistletoe and killed Baldr with it.

In the Gesta Danorum version of the story, Baldr and Höðr are rival suitors, and Höðr kills Baldr with a sword named Mistilteinn (Old Norse "mistletoe"). In addition, a sword by the same name appears in various other Norse legends.

Ancient Greece and Rome

Mistletoe figured prominently in Greek mythology, and is believed to be the Golden Bough of Aeneas, ancestor of the Romans.<ref>Virgil (19 BCE) The Aeneid</ref> Also in Greek mythology mistletoe was used by heroes to access the underworld.<ref>The Woodland Trust - Mistletoe: meaning, mythology and magic</ref> The Romans associated mistletoe with peace, love and understanding and hung it over doorways to protect the household.<ref>BBC News - Tenbury Wells: Centuries-old romance with mistletoe</ref> Hanging mistletoe was part of the festival of Saturnalia.<ref>The Woodland Trust - Mistletoe: meaning, mythology and magic</ref>


File:Mistletoe Postcard 1900.jpg
Mistletoe postcard, circa 1900

When Christianity became widespread in Europe after the 3rd century AD, the religious or mystical respect for the mistletoe plant was integrated to an extent into the new religion.Template:Citation needed In some way that is not presently understood, this may have led to the widespread custom of kissing under the mistletoe plant during the Christmas season. The earliest documented case of kissing under the mistletoe dates from 16th century England, a custom that was apparently very popular at that time.

Winston Graham reports a Cornish tradition that mistletoe was originally a fine tree from which the wood of the Cross was made, but afterwards it was condemned to live on only as a parasite.<ref>Template:Cite book</ref>

Mistletoe is commonly used as a Christmas decoration, though such use was rarely alluded to until the 18th century.<ref>Susan Drury, "Customs and Beliefs Associated with Christmas Evergreens: A Preliminary Survey" Folklore 98.2 (1987:194–199) p. 194.</ref> According to custom, the mistletoe must not touch the ground between its cutting and its removal as the last of Christmas greens at Candlemas. It may remain hanging throughout the year, often to preserve the house from lightning or fire, until it is replaced the following Christmas Eve.<ref>Drury 1987.</ref><ref>Sydney J. Tanner. There’s more to mistletoe than just a kiss prompter. Chippewa.com. December 10, 2009</ref> The tradition has spread throughout the English-speaking world, but is largely unknown in the rest of Europe. (The similar native species Phoradendron leucarpum is used in North America in lieu of the European Viscum album.)

According to an old Christmas custom, a man and a woman who meet under a hanging of mistletoe were obliged to kiss. The custom may be of Scandinavian origin.<ref>E. Cobham Brewer, Dictionary of Phrase and Fable 1898, s.v. "Kissing under the mistletoe" relates the custom to the death of Baldr, without authority.</ref> It was alluded to as common practice in 1808<ref>In a newspaper advertisement for shaving products:'THE KISS UNDER THE MISSELTOE. Under the misseltoe the maid was led/Altho' she cried, No, she held up her head/To obtain a kiss: a sigh was heard./The reason why - Tom rubbed her with his beard' The Times (London, England), 13 October 1808; p.4</ref> and described in 1820 by American author Washington Irving in his The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.:


In Germany, the Christmas tradition is that people who kiss under mistletoe will have an enduring love or are bound to marry one another.<ref>Zeit - Warum küsst man sich unter dem Mistelzweig?</ref>

Local symbol

Every year, the UK town of Tenbury Wells holds a mistletoe festival and crowns a 'Mistletoe Queen'.<ref>BBC News - Tenbury Wells: Centuries-old romance with mistletoe</ref>

Mistletoe is the county flower of Herefordshire. It was voted such in 2002 following a poll by the wild plant conservation charity Plantlife.<ref>Plantlife website County Flowers page Template:Webarchive</ref>

Popular culture

In 1988, the British singer Cliff Richard released a popular christmas song called 'Mistletoe and Wine'.



Mistletoe is an ingredient of pomace brandy based liquor biska made in Istra, Croatia.<ref>Template:Cite news</ref>

Alternative medicine

Template:Further information Mistletoe leaves and young twigs are used by herbalists, and preparations made from them are popular in Europe, especially in Germany, for attempting to treat circulatory and respiratory system problems.<ref>Ernst E, Schmit K, Steuer-Vogt MK. Mistletoe for cancer? A systematic review of randomised controlled trials. Int J Cancer 2003;107:262-7, cited in BMJ 2006;333:1293–1294 (23 December)Template:Dead link</ref><ref>Drug Digest Template:Webarchive</ref><ref>botanical.com – A Modern Herbal | Mistletoe Template:Webarchive</ref> Use of mistletoe extract in the treatment of cancer originated with Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy.

Although laboratory and animal experiments have suggested that mistletoe extract may affect the immune system and be able to kill some kinds of cancer cells, there is little evidence of its benefit to people with cancer.<ref name=cancer.gov>Template:Cite web</ref><ref name=coch-2010>Template:Cite journal</ref>

Bird trapping

The sticky juice of mistletoe berries was used to make birdlime, an adhesive to trap small animals or birds.<ref>Thomas B. Johnson. 1848. The sportsman's cyclopaedia. 940 p. Template:Webarchive</ref>


See also


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Further reading