Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Mistletoe – 1

As mistletoe, Viscum album, was inadvertently omitted from Vickery’s Folk Flora (2019),  two posts on this website will remedy this.  This post gathers together odd scraps of mistletoe-lore, the second will deal with its association with Chistmas.

A hemiparasite (getting some, but not all, of its its food from its host), mistletoe grows on a wide range of deciduous trees, most commonly apple, Malus spp., lime, Tilia europaea, and false acacia, Robinia pseudoacacia.  It prefers host-trees growing in comparatively isolated situations, such as orchards, parkland, and hedgerows; romantic illustrations of Druids collecting mistletoe in forests are ecologically incorrect.

In the past mistletoe was mainly restricted to lowland areas in England, but it has also been introduced elsewhere, and is becoming increasingly frequent within its core areas and is spreading beyond these.

Local names for mistletoe include: all-heal in Scotland, churchman’s greeting in Somerset, kiss-and-go in Dorset, kiss-me-slow in Somerset, masslinn in Suffolk, misle in Scotland, and mislin-bush in East Anglia.

Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79) noted:

‘The Druids hold nothing more sacred than mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is a Valonia oak [an evergreen oak, Quercus ithaburensis, native from southern Italy to southwest Asia] …  Mistletoe is, however, rather seldom on Valonia oak, and when it is discovered it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon (which for these tribes constitutes the beginning of the months and the years) …  Hailing the moon in a native word that means ‘healing all things’, they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath the tree and bring up two white bulls, whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion.  A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and with a golden sickle cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak.  Then finally they kill the victims, praying to God to render his gift propitous on those on whom he has bestowed it.  They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren, and that it is an anecdote for all poisons’ [1].

As a result of this passage, more nonsense has been written about mistletoe than any other British plant (though yew, Taxus baccata, comes a close second).  As we know extremely little about the Druids, most of what has been written about them tells us more about what writers would like them to have been, rather than what they actually were.  And it is noteworthy that there are no records of Druids being associated with mistletoe in Britain.

It seems that the mistletoe rarely grows of oak in Britain. John Box, who investigated such things, in 2017-18 , could find only 13 native oak trees which were parasitised [2].

Because of its supposed Druid, pagan associations, mistletoe has been banned from churches; according to the Daily Mirror of 8 December 1958:

‘Mistletoe has been banned from a church this Christmas because, says the vicar it is “a pagan decoration”.                                                                             But – a sprig will hang in the vicar’s home.                                                        The ban announced by the Revd H.R. Joyce applies to St Thomas’s Church, Derby.                                                                                                                         He has invited parishioners to decorate the church with holly, but has told them: “Mistletoe is a pagan decoration and under no circumstances should be hung in a Christian church”.                                                                               He explained yesterday: “Mistletoe has strong connections with the Druids, who were the pagan leaders of the Ancient Britons”. He added: “I have nothing against mistletoe in the home – I enjoy kissing pretty girls under it was much as anyone else”.’

According to a caption in the temporary exhibition, ‘150 Years of the Christmas Card’ at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, from November 1993 to January 1994:

‘As neither tree nor shrub, mistletoe symbolises freedom: this might explain the custom of kissing under the mistletoe, an act of liberation from usual restraint … it was feminine to the masculine of the oak.  At the winter soltice it symbolised new life.’

According to some writers mistletoe is the badge of the Hay clan. Like several other clan badges this seems inappropriate; the clan had its base in northeast Scotland, where mistletoe does not naturally grow, and is unlikely to have been cultivated.

In 1856 a German visitor to Conwy asked a woman living in the decayed remains of a sixteenth-century mansion was asked if she was ever afraid of ghosts:

‘”Iesu!” cried the woman, “no, we don’t think of that!”  But the schoolmaster showed me the fireplace into which, according to the custom of the Welsh, a bunch of mistletoe had been stuffed for the summer, still possessing the aura of secret powers from the time of the Druids. “That’ll keep all evil spirits away,” he said.  The woman smiled, and looked as if she was a little ashamed in my presence’ [3].

In Devon some people that mistletoe indoors ensured sufficient food and prevent the house from being struck by lightning. However other Devon people treated the plant with caution.  According to a Torquay serving maid:

‘Mistletoe is the poison of the apple tree. It comes up out of the roots.  That is why when there are many apple trees together, they don’t grow well unless there’s mistletoe on them’ [4].

In nearby Newton Abbot: ‘If you plant mistletoe and it grows, your daughters will never marry’ [5].

In folk medicine mistletoe was used for the treatment epilepsy and measles, and considered good for cows after calving and ewes after lambing.  In the East Riding of Yorkshire it was recalled in 1902 that ‘the late Col. Haworth-Booth informed the writer that people still came begging for the plant for the cure of epilepsy, and considered it generally efficacious’ [6].  It was recorded from Yeovil, Somerset, in 1975 that ‘mistletoe from a hawthorn bush for measles; this was made into tea (horrible)’.

In vetinary medicine, John Newton noted in c.1683: ‘in Essex … people give it to cows after they have newly calv’d to ym cleanse well’ [7].  About 200 years later, Henry Bull on asking ‘old agriculturists and people learned in country customs’ in Herefordshire, if they knew of any uses of mistletoe found that ‘every single person’ replied that ‘it is an excellent thing to give to sheep after lambing’, and others added ‘and cows too after calving’ [8].

1. H. Rackman, (trans.), Pliny the Elder, Natural History, IV, Books XII-XVI, London, 1968, p.549.

2. J. Box, ‘Oaks (Quercus spp.) parasitised by mistletoe Viscum album (Santalaceae) in Britain’, British & Irish Botany 1: 39-49, 2019 [available on-line free of charge].

3.  W. Linnard, trans. & ed., An Autumn in Wales, Cowbridge, 1985, p.34

4. R.P. Chope, ‘Twenty-seventh on Devonshire folk-lore’, Report & Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science 57, 1926, p.110.

5. T. Brown, ‘Fifty-sixth report on folklore, Report & Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science 91, 1959, p. 200.

6.  J.F. Robinson, The Flora of  the East Riding of Yorkshire, London, 1902, p.172.

7. ‘Mr Newton’s Mss Notes as set down in his Catalogus Plant. Angl.’ in an interleaved copy of John Ray’s Catalogus Plantarum Angliae (1677), now in the library of the Natural History Museum, London.

8. H. Bull, ‘The mistletoe (Viscum album L.) in Herefordshire’ Journal of Botany 2, 1864, p.381.

Derived from the mistletoe entry in R. Vickery, A Dictionary of Plant-lore, O.U.P., 1995.

Images:  main, on apple, Cambridge Botanic Gardens, October 2023; upper inset, on lime; lower inset, rather unusually on hazel, Corylus avellana, both Norbury Park, near Leatherhead, Surrey, November 2023 .