The Independent Archive: Mistletoe: a plant for all seasons

22 December 1987 Before ever a couple kissed under the Christmas mistletoe, it was a plant of ancient religious significance. Now it is emerging as a treatment for cancers. Oliver Gillie reports
THREE GRAINS of mistletoe pollen together with a few other odd facts are enough for archaeologists to construct an intriguing theory of human sacrifice in a sacred grove.

Lindow man, who was killed around 300BC, and found in a peat bog in Cheshire in 1984, had three grains of mistletoe pollen in his stomach. His throat was cut and he had also been garrotted with a thong.

Archaeologists have concluded that Lindow man may have been killed by Druids in a sacred grove in April or May while the mistletoe was in bloom. Equally, he may have been taking mistletoe as a potion to give himself magical strength or as an ancient remedy for epilepsy or some other ill.

Pliny, writing in the first century AD, describes rites in groves of oak trees bearing mistletoe, although by this time human sacrifices had been banned by the Romans and white bulls were offered instead. He says that the Druids "hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe":

They call the mistletoe by a name meaning, in their language, the all- healing. Having made preparation for sacrifice and a banquet beneath the trees, they bring thither two white bulls, whose horns are bound for the first time. Clad in a white robe, the priest ascends the tree and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, and it is received by others in a white cloak.

Then they kill the victim, praying that the god will render this gift of his propitious to those to whom he has granted it. They believe that the mistletoe, taken in drink, imparts fecundity to all animals and that it is an antidote for all poisons.

Today, mistletoe is brought into houses in winter so that, according to tradition, the spirits of the forest can seek shelter from bleak winter weather. Druidic power is still tacitly recognised today, in so far as the plant is forbidden in churches.

Belief that mistletoe imparts fecundity may be the original reason why we kiss beneath it. A couple who come together beneath the sacred plant may receive power from it and conceive.

Apart from its sacred qualities, Pliny recognised 11 conditions which mistletoe could treat. He recommends the glutinous material from the berries to treat inflamed swellings of every description, to heal wounds, for rectifying malformed nails and to desiccate scrofulous sores. Most interesting of all, he suggested that mistletoe could be used to "disperse tumours". It is possible that Lindow man was treating himself for cancer. None was found in the upper part of his body but it is possible that there was a tumour in the lower part of the body which was not preserved.

Almost 2,000 years after Pliny suggested mistletoe for tumours doctors in Germany and Switzerland are beginning to get results which suggest that the plant could be useful in cancer treatment.

Dr Georg Salzer, a doctor in the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute in Vienna, has been using mistletoe with cancer patients for 30 years. He says: "Mistletoe is not a miracle cure or a wonder drug. I don't want to overstate its importance but it can achieve results." He has treated 4,000 people with injections of mistletoe extract in combination with drugs or radiation.

His work suggests that mistletoe extracts not only attack cancer cells but also stimulate the immune system. The extracts appear to stimulate lymphocytes (white blood cells) to attack the tumour.

There may be a special reason why mistletoe is a good source of products effective against cancer. Being a parasite, mistletoe contains a number of substances which appear to protect it against poisons produced by the host tree in an attempt to get rid of it.

Last year a whole volume of Oncology, a respectable international journal on cancer, was devoted to mistletoe. In a foreword, Dr Hartmut Franz, a Berlin cancer specialist, points out that many drugs used in orthodox medicine were first discovered as herbs or by chance, then finally developed in an optimal form. This has yet to be done for mistletoe.

From the Health page of `The Independent', Tuesday 22 December 1987. The Law Report resumes with the Law Term, on 11 January 1999