Miraculous mistletoe

If you happen to find yourself under the mistletoe this season, don’t despair if you aren’t accompanied by the man/woman of your dreams...

Viscum album from Icones plantarum Medico-oeconomico-technologicarum cum earum fructus ususque descriptione by Ferdinand Bernhard Vietz, 1817Remind yourself instead that historically mistletoe (or Viscum album) is thought to have had magical powers, providing protection against thunder, lightning and other evils as well as curing illnesses and guaranteeing good health.

The Romans would have us believe that when Jupiter descended from Heaven, he took up residence in a mistletoe bush. Medea, the sorceress in Greek mythology, gathered up the plants with a brass hook and used the berries (which are only found on the female plant) to make magic potions, and when Aeneas wanted to visit his dead father in Hades, he used the golden mistletoe bough to charm his way across the Styx. 

Victorian Christmas cardThe Druids also placed faith in its powers, and organised elaborate ceremonies to collect it on the fifth day of the first new moon of the year. Berries were then turned into potions which were believed to prevent sterility. Fertility is a common theme in mistletoe legend and clearly carries over into our present day customs, though it’s hard to believe in this day and age that a young lady under the sprig wouldn’t refuse the kiss if the young man wasn’t to her liking!

Mistletoe in berryIf you want to find out more about this fascinating parasitic plant, the Garden Library at Wisley has a number of interesting books – including one on how to grow your own mistletoe if, like many of us, you have baulked at the price of a small bunch! While you are here, you could also check out how to keep the poinsettia alive that Aunt Mabel gives you every year…

Mistletoe and holly by Sophia Prior
Grown your own mistletoe by Nick Wheeldon
*RHS members can borrow from the thousands of gardening books held in the Lindley Libraries – visit our online catalogue
Even if you are not an RHS member, the Lindley Libraries are open to everyone and provide access to modern collections of books and journals on gardening and related topics. Our heritage collections of rare books, photographs, art and archives are accessible by appointment.

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