Supply and Use

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Supply and use at Christmas/New Year

Buying and selling mistletoe is a most peculiar business.  The plant is a parasite of trees – and yet it has a long history of practical use and is in considerable demand at Christmas.  It can be a pest plant but it is but an interesting and useful pest plant!

Mistletoe trading is a relatively modern concept – probably only dating from the mid-19th century when kissing under mistletoe became popular across Britain and Ireland (and abroad in English-speaking countries).  Since most of Britain (and nearly all of Ireland) had little or no mistletoe (see distribution maps on XYZ) an organised harvest and trade developed in areas where it did grow. These were (and still are) largely Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Somerset.

The best-known trading centre today is at Tenbury Wells, on the Worcestershire/ Herefordshire border, where wholesale mistletoe auctions have been taking place for at least 100 years. Much trading goes on elsewhere too, but is less in the public eye.  In Tenbury the auctions were, until 2005, held in the agricultural market, with mistletoe incongruously stacked in livestock stalls on auction day.

Today the auctions are held out of town, with mistletoe ‘wraps’ mostly gathered from mistletoe-laden apple orchards in the surrounding areas, laid out in rows on the ground.  Buyers, from florist and greengrocery stores across the country, arrive to bid on these on the two or three allocated days each November/December.

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Mistletoe imports to Britain

The harvesting and supply of home-grown mistletoe seems never to have met domestic demand. Imports, to Britain, of mistletoe from mainland Europe have been taking place annually since the mid 19th century.

The pictures below how French mistletoe being harvested in Normandy and Breton Orchards, specifically for export to Britain, in the 1920s and 1930s. Note the traditional costume – the women’s hats don’t look very practical for mistletoe harvesting!

The lower pictures show crates arriving at Southampton Docks, and subsequently at Nine Elms Station London, in the 1920s and 1930s. The wooden open-slatted crates are often a good clue to imported mistletoe – they are a style that has been used for decades and still sometimes seen today.  British mistletoe is usually packed much more loosely.

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French domestic mistletoe supply

Traditional mistletoe customs across mainland Europe vary, with many more closely linked to New Year rather than Christmas and the giving of mistletoe as a good luck emblem or symbol of peace rather than as an excuse for a kiss.

Mistletoe in France was often sold as on the street by Marchands de Gui – Mistletoe Sellers.  These pictures show a few typical pictures of French mistletoe sellers – ranging from the traditional merchant with a pole of mistletoe, through to a rather more saucy representation from Raphael Kirchner (dating from the first World War) and examples from other famous artists like Barrere and Picasso.

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Mistletoe in medicine

Mistletoe has a reputation as a poisonous plant – which, to some extent, it is. But, like many other poisonous plants, some of its properties make it very useful in medicine. It has been used in numerous remedies for centuries, probably way back into prehistory.

Before reading on, please note:

  1. This website is not a medical site, and does not recommend or endorse any medical treatments. The information here merely outlines past and present uses of mistletoe in medicine
  2. The mistletoe discussed here is Viscum album, the species common in Europe. Other mistletoe species in other countries will not have the same medicinal properties, so any information given here cannot be assumed to apply to those.

It is not surprising that the ancients would have regarded mistletoe as possibly having medicinal properties – its growth, parasitic on trees, unusual growth pattern, unique white berries, are all properties that attract the attention of herbalists.

Mistletoe from Hieronymus Bock’s Herbal of 1565
Mistletoe from Hieronymus Bock’s Herbal of 1565

Herbal use of mistletoe is a continuous theme in mistletoe accounts, including the 1st century accounts of the druids by Pliny’s and Dioscorides’ Materia medica encyclopedia. It has been variously described as an all-heal, for use to enhance fertility, cure nervous disorders and relieve high blood pressure.  The great Herbals of the 15th to 17th centuries all many of 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 epilepsy. 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”

Mistletoe Extract – a modren herbal preparation
Mistletoe Extract – a modern herbal preparation

Today, whilst many are wary of mistletoe because of its toxicity (primarily due to complex proteins known as lectins), it is still used in herbal and other medicine. Often for the same ailments – nervous complaints, blood pressure – that were highlighted centuries ago.  A mistletoe tea, from dried mistletoe leaves, is very popular across continental Europe, and is said to help blood pressure problems and calm nerves. In herbal veterinary medicine mistletoe is included in tablets to calm cats and dogs. It is also an ingredient in some cosmetics, including skin care and shampoos, so you may be using mistletoe without knowing it.

A very modern medicinal use of mistletoe is in cancer therapy – though this is, at present, mainly only suggested by complementary and alternative medical specialists.

It has its origins in Rudolf Steiner’s 1920s work when he was developing many ideas about medicinal value of plants.  His ‘science of the spirit’ (anthroposophy) approach suggested that particular plant species could be linked to specific ailments.

Mistletoe Therapy for Cancer: Prevention, Treatment and Healing by Johannes Wilkens and Gert Bohm

He identified mistletoe as a species that could help with cancer treatment and in the following decades his teachings and suggestions for mistletoe treatments have been substantially developed in mainland Europe, particularly in Germany and Switzerland.

There are now a number of dedicated anthroposophic clinics and manufacturers of mistletoe extracts, using the specific processes suggested by Steiner. Most are in continental Europe.  The mistletoe treatment is usually complementary – used alongside and in addition to, conventional cancer treatments. Mistletoe extracts are injected subcutaneously and are thought to stimulate the body’s immune system as well giving patients a better quality of life whilst undergoing conventional cancer treatment. 

Note that there is no consensus, in conventional medicine, supporting the use of mistletoe in this way. Its supporters are vocal, but so are many of its detractors.

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