Notes from the Apothecary

December 1st, 2017

Notes from the Apothecary: Mistletoe

A poisonous parasite by nature, yet revered throughout history as sacred and mystical, mistletoe (viscum) is a strange plant that exists only via the bodies of other plants, mainly trees. Viscum album is the most widely recognised form of mistletoe, and often appears latched on to the oak tree, making a pairing that is very significant within the Druidic path.

Several 18th century paintings depict druids cutting or having cut mistletoe, which refers to the account by Pliny the Elder of the Ritual of Oak and Mistletoe which involved Gaulish druids climbing an oak on the sixth day after a new moon, and cutting the mistletoe away with a golden sickle. The image Pliny created of white robed magicians preparing a ritual sacrifice in honour of their sacred plants has become an intrinsic facet of how, in the modern age, we presume druids were in Celtic times. Mistletoe is still highly revered by modern druids, as are the many trees it grasps on to in order to survive.

The Kitchen Garden

This is normally one of my favourite sections of Notes from the Apothecary, where I get to explore all the yummy opportunities the plant brings, however mistletoe is not a kitchen herb by any stretch of the imagination. The plant is highly poisonous, and should always be handled with care. Please wash your hands after touching the plant.

For those who wish to cultivate their own mistletoe, there’s a lot of great advice here. This site also helps dispel a few myths about growing mistletoe, including the common belief that berries (which are the fruit and hold the seeds of the plant) will only germinate if they have been digested by a bird… Not only is this slightly gross, it’s also completely untrue, although bird droppings do absolutely help the plant spread itself far and wide. The seeds sort of stick themselves to the bark of the ‘host’, and take a few months to germinate. They might not start to look like ‘proper’ mistletoe plants until they are as much as four years old, and even then, will still be very small. Remember, the plant is parasitic; well, hemiparasitic, which means that although it does do some of its own photosynthesis, it relies on the host tree for most of its nutrition. This means the growth of your host tree will be affected somewhat, although in some cases this may barely be noticeable. Fruit trees (mistletoe loves apple trees) will often suffer a reduced fruit yield when ‘infected’ with mistletoe.

Mistletoe does make a beautiful decoration, particularly during the winter months as it is evergreen, so brings a dash of greenery to the home when all is cold and bleak outside. It has long been used as a festive decoration around Christmas, Yule and the Winter Solstice. The 18th and 19th century tradition of kissing beneath the mistletoe still exists today, although is much less prevalent. Consider that in Victorian England, if a woman was ‘caught’ beneath the mistletoe and refused to kiss the fellow concerned, bad luck indeed would befall her. Hmm, that’s not OK is it really… this is a tradition that I think has had its time. Fully consensual kissing only under our mistletoe please!

The Witch’s Kitchen

As mentioned earlier, mistletoe has a high place indeed in the pantheon of druidic herbs and plants. The British Druidic Order states that the combination of the white fruits (white indicating purity according to the BDO, but also indicates a connection to the fairy world in Celtic folklore), its parasitic and poisonous nature, plus the fact that it was very visible during winter may have led to it being so highly prized by druids. The druids of Pliny’s world sacrificed bulls to honour the cutting of the sacred plant, whereas today it is the lives of the animals that druids hold sacred, rather than their spilt blood. This can be seen as an evolution of the rituals of Celtic times; while we honour our ancestors, we are not them, and we can live in a very different way with very different morals and ethics without losing the magic and the mystery of the druidic path.

Susa Morgan Black tells us that mistletoe was mentioned in various historical sources as one of three ‘most holy’ plants (Drualus, via, possibly alongside vervain and a third which could be foxglove, wormwood, or one of many others; some toxic, some not. She also touches on the liminal nature of the plant:

In truth, [it] falls between the cracks of definition – a plant, a tree, a parasite, touching neither earth nor sky, which adds to its mysterious and otherworldly ambience. (Susa Morgan Black)

When something is neither in one plane or the other, or not quite one state but not completely something else either, we refer to it as being liminal. Liminal times of day are dawn and dusk, where the world is neither completely light or dark. Liminal times of year are the equinoxes and the solstices; points of pause and transition.

Moving away from a solely Celtic overview, mistletoe would make an appropriate offering to Hekate, or a suitable decoration for her altar. Hekate is a truly liminal goddess, with dominion over land, sea and sky. Like the mistletoe, she exists in multiple planes. Also, she is strongly associated with poisonous plants, and although mistletoe is not specifically named as one of ‘Her’ plants in the same way as aconite is, the Orphic Songs of the Argonauts tells us that in Hekate’s garden ‘many more poisonous rose up from the ground.’

One of the most famous tales involving mistletoe is the Norse legend of the death of Baldr, which ultimately leads to Ragnarök. All things pledge not to harm the son of Odin, after he and his mother share a prophetic dream of his death. However, the mistletoe never makes the oath, and Loki fashions a weapon from the plant. The gods are hurling all sorts of objects at Baldr, enjoying the sport as nothing can harm the young god. Loki gives the hand-made weapon to Baldr’s brother Höðr, who is blind. Höðr throws the dart (sometimes an arrow or a spear) and Baldr dies, starting a chain of events which will lead to the destruction of the gods as they are now.

If you honour Frigg, or Baldr, it’s probably advisable to avoid mistletoe in your festive decorations, as it is a reminder of the awful events of Baldr’s demise. However, mistletoe could be used to summon Loki, as in the legend he searches far and wide for the mistletoe, so in a way the plant is calling to him. However, call upon Loki at your own risk; he’s not called the god of mischief for nothing, and when Loki gets mischievous, as we have learned, people die.

I Never Knew…

Although toxic to us, the berries are food for many birds, including the mistle thrush, which may have earned its name from the sticky, white berries it loves so much. During the winter months, mistle thrushes will actively defend both holly bushes and mistletoe clumps, as both are such an important food source. It’s no wonder the mistle thrush is, in itself, a symbol of hope in the bleak midwinter.

Image credits: Viscum Album, copyright H. Zell 2009, via Wikimedia; Viscum album subsp. abietis, Schwäbisch-Fränkische Waldberge, copyright BerndH 2012, via Wikimedia; Mistle Thrush 3, copyright Tony Hisgett 2009, via Wikimedia.



About the Author:

Mabh Savage is a Pagan author, poet and musician, as well as a freelance journalist.

She is the author of A Modern Celt: Seeking the Ancestors and Pagan Portals: Celtic Witchcraft.

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