The use of mistletoe in herbal remedies and medicine probably has its origins in prehistory. According to Pliny the Elder the druids of Britain used to harvest mistletoe from their sacred oaks (and oak is a rare host for traditional mistletoe) to use in rituals and in medicine. It’s never been clear exactly what they used it for – but it has had a reputation ever since as an all-heal and for use to enhance fertility, cure nervous disorders and relieve high blood pressure.
The earliest archaeological evidence is from Lindow Man, a Roman-era bog body found preserved in Cheshire. Analysis of his stomach contents revealed a few grains of mistletoe pollen – and this has been (rather imaginatively!) interpreted as evidence that he drank some sort of mistletoe drink before his death. Some let their imaginations run further and suggest the mistletoe remains are proof he was a druid, or even a sacrificial victim of druids.
The evidence for these imaginative stories is minimal however – all we really know is Lindow Man had ingested some mistletoe, which might, with a little less imagination, merely suggest he was taking some medicine. (For more thoughts on Lindow Man have a look at these Mistletoe Diary entries).
Herbals and Materia Medica publications from Dioscorides onwards continue to feature mistletoe as a medicinal plant, with most concentrating on its fertility symbolism (which may have more to with the plant’s appearance than its chemical properties) and on its value in helping nervous illnesses, particularly epilepsy.
The great Herbals of the 15th to 17th centuries all include these claims, often stressing (and depicting) the value of mistletoe on oak – a direct echo of Pliny’s writings many centuries before.
By the 18th century these claims were beginning to be backed-up (to some extent) by research, including a famous study by Sir John Colbatch in 1720, investigating mistletoe’s effects on epilpesy. At that time he wrote:
“that there must be something extraordinary about that uncommon beautiful plant, that the Almighty had designed it for further and more noble uses than barely to feed thrushes or to be hung up superstitiously”