At this time of year in Britain, people hang branches of mistletoe and kiss each other under them. At other times, most people barely look at this semi-parasitic plant but it’s there. It grows on trees and takes nutrients from them. It also makes itself from air and sunlight, being evergreen with chlorophyll in its leaves and stems.

The European white-berried mistletoe (Viscum album) is native here. It’s abundant in the South West Midlands of England. It grows elsewhere in Britain too, and in many parts of continental Europe and Asia. Here’s a blog about V. album.

If you’re in an English-speaking country, mistletoe is all about kissing at Christmas. At a party, when you’ve been at the sloe gin all kinds of people may seem kissable. That person who annoys you… your boss… most people accept ‘under the mistletoe’ as an excuse.

Kissing isn’t the only mistletoe tradition and it hasn’t always been about copping off with people. In some cultures mistletoe kisses have been about healing the sick and injured. In modern times, some people drink mistletoe tea to treat high blood pressure (not only when caused by your boss) and some people inject mistletoe extract to treat cancer.

We know that many plants contain useful pharmaceuticals. But let’s not jump to conclusions about mistletoe as a cancer cure. There are many kinds of cancer and this ‘cure’ is based on an intuitive idea about cancer resembling a parasite. Professor Edzard Ernst reviewed the science about mistletoe therapy for cancer. He concluded that ‘the most reliable randomised controlled trials fail to show benefit, and some reports show considerable potential for harm.’

To some, alternative medicine is attractive. But after reading Prof Ernst’s words in the very well-respected British Medical Journal I say no. If you have cancer don’t inject mistletoe. Just enjoy the kissing.

About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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18 Responses to Mistletoe

  1. Pingback: Know food almonds | MyInfoWiZARD.COM

  2. Finn Holding says:

    The BMJ article is interesting. I find that extracts of fermented mistletoe being available as an injectable cancer treatment quite horrifying. And that German insurance companies fund such treatment is even more bizarre.

    Another aspect which worries me about desparate and frightened people being duped into using untested ‘drugs’ in this way is that even if the ‘drug’ were safe and efficacious there is no guarantee it will actually get to the target tissue and be processed in such a way that it can fulfil its intended function. Pharmaceutical companies spend huge sums of money making sure chemical entities being developed as drugs are chemically optimised to achieve tissue penetration and the optimal in vivo half life to render them simultaneously efficacious and safe. The peddlars of these potions haven’t been so fastidious I suspect.

    I like your conclusion… forget the injecting, just go for the snog 🙂

    • argylesock says:

      Thanks! I inject every day, and I know plenty of people who do so too, but for goodness’ sake. The drug I inject has been through long processes of development, testing and licensing. That’s not to say ‘reject all herbal remedies’ of course – far from it – but people need to keep their brains engaged with reality.

      • Finn Holding says:

        There’s the rub. For folk who have late stage terminal cancer objectivity may not be easy, so the charlatans that prey on very poorly, often very frightened people to fleece them for their money need to be challenged.

        • argylesock says:

          Yes indeed. In the MS world, there was a case a year or 2 back in which a charlatan was convicted (of fruad iirc) for charging large sums to inject people with what he claimed was a suspension of stem cells. It was just saline. I saw an interview with one of the people bankrupted by this fraud, saying that you’ll do all kinds of things when desperate.

  3. Baldscientist says:

    Great post as usual! It is true that many medications are derived from plants and that there is a lot of potential medicines yet to be discovered from nature, but there is a lot of things to be considered before saying that something works (or not). I also understand the desperation of a sick patient or someone with a sick loved one. Sadly, there are many dishonest and frankly evil (there is no other wa to say it) people that prey on that desperation. As usual, education is the key to try to help people if not to overcome sickness, to avoid been taken advantage of …

    That said, let’s not discount mistletoe (or any other plants, etc. ) just yet… There may be some surprises ahead!

  4. narf77 says:

    We have a native parasitic dodder here in Tasmania/Australia but unlike your misteltoe which is hemiparasitic, dodder will kill the tree that it invades…after seeing the end results of a dodder invasion (looks like something from the Florida swamps!) I would rather mistletoe thanks! I have seen mistletoe plants growing in trees and they are quite pretty…dodder is deadly and would probably do you in if injected as well! There are always scum floating around waiting for poor desperate people to predate…I think that when you get desperate you are willing to put your rationale in your back pocket if you have a straw to grasp at. Thank you for a very interesting topic 🙂

    • argylesock says:

      That sounds nasty. There’s a dodder over here too, but sfaik it attacks grasses not trees and I don’t know of it being a problem like the one you describe.

      • Jonathan Briggs says:

        Mistletoes can kill too, though the British native mistletoe needs to be very well established and out of control for that to happen (see http://www.british.mistletoe.org.uk for info on a survey on mistletoe management issues here). British native dodders generally don’t kill – there are two main species in the UK Greater Dodder (Cuscuta europea) attacks nettles and Common Dodder (C. epithymum) usually on heathland plants, particularly gorse etc. Not sure which species Argyllsock is referring to on grasses but there are a few others that turn up from time to time.

        And of course some of the dodders in the tropics not true dodders but are ‘laurel dodders ‘ – species of Cassytha in the Lauraceae not Cuscuta in the Convolvulaceae (though looking and acting the same – interesting convergent evolution) – so a Tasmanian/Australian dodder might not, depending on its family, be any relation to a European one.

  5. Hahaha so true about the lack of discernment in the snogging department which goes on underneath the mistltoe! And thanks for introducing the specialist blog – that and the duckweed one, I love them!

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