Krebsforschung Herdecke, Department of Applied Immunology, University Witten/Herdecke, Communal Hospital, 58313 Herdecke, Germany
MISTLETOE: THE MYTHICAL PLANT
Mistletoes belong to the families Loranthaceae and Viscaceae, which both are taxonomically related to each other, and share the order Santalales. The family of Viscaceae has seven genera (Arceuthobium, Dendrophthora, Ginalloa, Korthalsella, Notothixos, Phoradendron, Viscum) and several hundred species world-wide. The European white-berry mistletoe (Viscum album L.) is an evergreen, dioecious plant growing half-parasitically on its host. V. album is a small shrub with linear lanceolate leathery leaves which persist for several seasons. The yellowish-green flowers grow in the sprout axil and develop the translucent, whitish berries in the late fall and early winter. Theophrastos (371-286 BC) described mistletoe as an evergreen plant growing on pine and fir trees, fed to animals. He recognised that mistletoe does not grow on the earth, but is spread to trees by birds whose excretions contain "seeds" from the berries.
Unlike other plants, mistletoe does not follow a 12 month vegetation period, never touches the earth, and blooms during winter (see Ramm et al., this book). The plant was considered sacred by the Celtic Druids, because in the dead of winter, when branches of the oak tree were bare, the mistletoe is still green and flourished without having roots on the earth. To them, the plant represented ever-lasting life. Plinius G.P.Secundus (23-79 AC) reported the Druids to ceremoniously remove mistletoe from oak trees with a golden sickle on the 6th day after new moon. They believed the plant was an antidote for poisons and ensured fertility, and to possess miraculous properties to cure each illness as an omnia sanans (Historia naturalis, liber XVI, 95).
The mythical plant mistletoe was used in ancient times together with aromatic substances as an incense (Ratsch, 1997; Fischer-Rizzi, 1999). Scenting of houses, animals and man with the blend of these herbs was suggested to protect against lightning, spells and bad dreams (Marzell, 1923), or to get in contact with "elementary power of nature" and to find the "inner stability" (Fischer-Rizzi, 1999). Burning of the "light-grown" mistletoe may release the "captured elementary power of light" (F.Wollner, personal communication).
Even today, the evergreen mistletoe is a symbol of fertility and good luck, and kissing under branches of mistletoe during the Christmas tide is popular in many
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