Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Mistletoe

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MISTLETOE[1] (Viscum album, L.), a species of Viscum, of the family Loranthaceæ. The whole genus is parasitical, and seventy-six species have been described; but only the mistletoe proper is a native of Europe. It forms an evergreen bush, about 4 feet in length, thickly crowded with (falsely) dichotomous branches and opposite leaves. The leaves are about 2 inches long, obovate-lanceolate, yellowish green; the diœcious flowers, which are small and nearly of the same colour but yellower, appear in February and March; the fruit, which when ripe is filled with a viscous semitransparent pulp (whence birdlime is derived), is almost always white, but there is said to be a variety with red fruit. The mistletoe is parasitic both on deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs, and “it would be difficult to say on what dicotyledonous trees it does not grow” (Loudon). In England it is most abundant on the apple tree, but rarely found on the oak. The fruit is eaten by most frugivorous birds, and through their agency, particularly that of the thrush (hence missel-thrush or mistle-thrush), the plant is propagated. (The Latin proverb has it that “Turdus malum sibi cacat”; but the sowing is really effected by the bird wiping its beak, to which the seeds adhere, against the bark of the tree on which it has alighted.) The growth of the plant is slow, and its durability proportionately great, its death being determined generally by that of the tree on which it has established itself. See Loudon, Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum, vol. ii. p. 1021 (1838). The mistletoe so extensively used in England at Christmas tide is largely derived from the apple orchards of Normandy.

Pliny (H. N., xvi. 92-95; xxiv. 6) has a good deal to tell about the viscum, a deadly parasite, though slower in its action than ivy. He distinguishes three “genera.” “On the fir and larch grows what is called stelis in Eubœa and hyphear in Arcadia.” Viscum, called dryos hyphear, is most plentiful on the esculent oak (quercus), but occurs also on the robur, Prunus sylvestris, and terebinth. Hyphear is useful for fattening cattle if they are hardy enough to withstand the purgative effect it produces at first; viscum is medicinally of value as an emollient, and in cases of tumour, ulcers, and the like; and he also notes it “conceptum fœminarum adjuvare si omnino secum habeant.” Pliny is also our authority for the reverence in which the mistletoe when found growing on the robur was held by the Druids. The robur, he says, is their sacred tree, and whatever is found growing upon it they regard as sent from heaven and as the mark of a tree chosen by God. Such cases of parasitism are rare, and when they occur attract much attention (est autem id rarum admodum inventu et repertum magna religione petitur), particularly on the sixth (day of the) moon, with which their months and years and, after the lapse of thirty years, their “ages” begin. Calling it in their own language “all heal” (omnia sanantem), after their sacrifices and banquets have been duly prepared under the tree, they bring near two white bulls whose horns are then for the first time bound. The priest clothed with a white robe ascends the tree, cuts [the mistletoe] with a golden hook; it is caught in a white mantle. They then slay the victims, praying God to prosper His gift to them unto whom He has given it. Prepared as a draught, it is used as a cure for sterility and a remedy for poisons. The mistletoe figures also in Scandinavian legend as having furnished the material of the arrow with which Baldur (the sun-god) was slain by the blind god Höder. Most probably this story had its origin in a particular theory as to the meaning of the word mistletoe.

  1. Greek ἰξία or ἰξός, hence Latin viscum, Italian vischio or visco, and French gui. The English word is the Anglo-Saxon misteltan, Icelandic mistelteinn, in which tan or teinn means a twig, and mistel may be associated either with mist in the sense of fog, gloom, because of the prominence of mistletoe in the dark season of the year, or with the same root in the sense of dung (from the character of the berries or the supposed mode of propagation).