The intentions of mistletoe uses were manifold and conflicting in several cases. According to the Greek physician and author Dioskorides (15-85 AC), Hippocrates (460-377 BC) used the mistletoe to treat diseases of the spleen and complaints associated with menstruation. Plinius (23-79 AC) reported mistletoe from oak trees, when applied as a chewed pulp, to be beneficial for epilepsy, infertility, and ulcers (Historia naturalis, liber XXIV, 12). Around 150 AC, the Platonist Celsus reported the use of mistletoe in the treatment of swellings or tumours (De Medicina, liber V, 18 and 23). Although the conditions have never been accurately defined, the use of mistletoe in medicine was referred also by the Alexandrian physician and surgeon Paulus Aegineta (625-690 AC), and the Persian philosopher and physician Avicenna (Ibn-Sina, 980-1037 AC) (Foy, 1904). However, as suggested by Marzell (1923), "oak mistletoes" described and used by most ancient scientists might not be identical with the white-berry mistletoe (V. album), which is green even in winter, but might be the yellow-berry Loranthus europaeus which in turns looses the leaves during winter. It seems unlikely that also the Celtic druids may have used Loranthus, which is common on oak trees, as the exceptional botanical properties of V. album predisposes its use as a miraculous plant.
During the middle ages, mistletoe was recommended as a treatment for epilepsy because it never fell to the ground. In fact, Paracelsus (Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, 1493-1541) recommended that epileptics should wear oak mistletoe on their right hand, and rosaries were made of mistletoe (mistlin paternoster) during the 15th century to prevent the disease (Marzell, 1923). In the 12th century, the abbess and composer Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) wrote treaties about natural history and medicinal uses of plants, animals and stones, and described mistletoe as a treatment for diseases of spleen and liver. In the European herbals of the 16th century, mistletoe was reported to warm, to soften, to astringent, and to be more sharp than bitter (von
Tubeuf, 1923). Epilepsy and diseases of the kidneys and spleens were treated with mistletoe from oaks; poultices and plasters with mistletoe and other plants were used to treat ulcers, fractures of the bone, and labour-pains. In 1729, the English physician Colbatch reported that not alone mistletoe from oak trees but also from other deciduous trees was an effective treatment for epilepsy.
In 1731, the physician and botanist Jacobus Theodorus Tabernaemontanus reported in a collection of herbal remedies that mistletoe never touching the ground is used for childhood epilepsy, when applied as a pulverised drug, or even by wearing it as a silver-amulet. Mistletoe was also applied for deworming children, to treat labour-pains, gout, and affections of lung and liver (Tabernaemontanus, 1731). However, when applied in wine, mistletoe was used to treat leprosy. When applied as a plaster, mistletoe was suggested to be beneficial in the treatment of mumps and fractures, while the binding of their leaves to the palms and sole will heal hepatitis (Tabernaemontanus, 1731).
During the 18th century, mistletoe was applied for "weakness of the heart" and oedema. These indications have been recorded in the homeopathic materia medica until today (Boericke, 1992). By the end of the 19th century, mistletoe was rejected by the scientists as a folklore remedy. The only remaining acceptable application was the mistletoe-containing ointment, Viscin, which was a yellowish bird-lime. Viscin was reported to be effective for eczema, ulcers of the feet, burns, and granulating wounds (Riehl, 1900; Klug, 1906). In a German encyclopaedia from 1934, it was stated that mistletoe did not contain clinically relevant compounds (Oestergaards Lexicon, 1934). However, an encyclopaedia from 1962 reports the historical use of mistletoe as a cure for epilepsy, convulsions, and worms (Duden Lexicon, 1962). The scientific interest on mistletoe awakened in the 20th century, as Gaultier (1907, 1910) investigated the effect of oral or subcutaneous applications of fresh Viscum album L. extracts on blood pressure in man and in animals.
Use of mistletoe as a remedy was not restricted to Europe, but is also developed in other parts of the world, or were transformed to similar plants. Argentine mistletoe (Ligaria cuneifolia) is used in local folk medicine to treat hypertension (Domínguez, 1928; Ratera and Ratera, 1980; Martinez-Crovetto, 1981). In fact, depending on the host tree, mistletoe may reduce or even increase blood pressure (Domínguez, 1928; Ratera and Ratera, 1980). Argentine mistletoe was further used as an external remedy to stabilise fractures of the bones, and as a lime for birds and insects (Ratera and Ratera, 1980). In veterinary medicine, Argentine mistletoe was used as a sedative (Arenas, 1982).
The Northern American mistletoe (Phoradendron subspecies) was used by the Native Americans as an abortifacient, and by farmers and veterinarians for "clearing cattle" (Hanzlik and French, 1924). Indeed, uterine contractions were reported in pregnant and non-pregnant women and animals after administration of mistletoe (Howard, 1892; Hanzlik and French, 1924). Howard (1892) also reported the use of mistletoe in menorrhagia, post-partum haemorrhage, and in haemoptysis.
In Japanese folk medicine, mistletoe (Taxillus kaempferi) was a remedy to treat hypotension (Nanba, 1980), while mistletoe (Sangjisheng; Ramulis Loranthi et Visci: Viscum coloratum (Kom.) Nakai, Loranthus parasitikus (L.) Merr., Loranthus yadoriki
Sieb.) was used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to treat hypertension, spasms of the heart, rheumatic pain, threatened abortion and locally to treat frostbite (Paulus and Ding Yu-he, 1987).
In West-India, a tea prepared from mistletoe leaves is traditionally used to treat diabetes (Peters, 1957), while a preparation of Viscum articulatum is given in fever attended with aching limbs (Chopra et al, 1956).
In Africa, Viscum aethiopicum was a remedy to treat diarrhoea, and Loranthus and Viscum subspecies was used by the Zulu as an enema for stomach troubles in children (Watts and Breyer-Brandwisk, 1962). To treat diabetes mellitus, Loranthus bengwensis L. has been widely used in Nigerian folk medicine (Obatomi et al., 1994). The Xhosa used a decoction of a Viscum subspecies in lumbago and sore throat, while a Loranthus subspecies was used as a poultice for orchids in Southern Rhodesia (Watts and Breyer-Brandwisk, 1962). A Tanganyika species of Loranthus is used in witchcraft, and another species of Loranthus as a poison by the Zezuru (Watts and Breyer-Brandwisk, 1962).
In 1920, Viscum album L. was introduced as a cancer treatment by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925; Steiner, 1985), founder of anthroposophy. He recommended a drug extract produced in a complicated manufacturing process combining sap from mistletoe harvested in the winter and summer (Steiner, 1989). Clinical evaluations of mistletoe as an adjuvant cancer treatment have expanded. During the 1960s, Vester and Nienhaus (1965) isolated carcinostatic protein fractions which were recognised later as viscotoxins and mistletoe lectins.
Table 1 Short history of mistletoe uses in Europe.
5th century BC Diseases of the spleen and complaints associated with menstruation
1st century AC Cure every illness as an omnia sanans, antidote for poisons, infertility
12th century AC Epilepsy, diseases of the liver and spleen, infertility for women, ulcers
16th century AC Epilepsy, diseases of the kidneys and spleen
18th century AC Epilepsy, diseases of lung and liver, labour pains, "weakness of the heart", oedema
19th century AC Rejection of mistletoe uses by the scientists as a folklore remedy
20th century AC Hypertension, arthrosis and cancer
Until today, several groups of researchers are still writing exciting new chapters of the mistletoe story. This book may give a glimpse that the last chapter of the mistletoe story remains to be written.
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