History, Identification, & Uses of Mistletoe

Who are you planning on meeting under the mistletoe this Christmas? Besides inducing a kiss, mistletoe has once been used medicinally and are even being studied today for its role in treating cancer.

Mistletoe can be used for more than a holiday kiss, it can also be used in medicine
Mistletoe can be used for more than a holiday kiss, it can also be used in medicine

Mistletoe is actually a parasitic plant which means that it obtains all the nutrients it needs from the host plant. They grow on deciduous trees including maples, oaks, poplars, apple trees, and birch. It is said that mistletoe grown on oaks have the best medicinal properties. The plant does not kill its host but the host must be at least 20 years old and becomes weakened by the mistletoe.

There are many species of mistletoe but there are two that we will be discussing here. Phoradendron leucarpum is native to North America and has some history of being used as medicine. Viscum album is native to Europe and is best known for its medicinal uses. It’s possible that both species could be used interchangeably but most of the medicinal information we have on mistletoe is from Viscum album.

Mistletoe has been used around the world for its medicinal properties. Native American would use the plant in teas and as an ingredient in other medicines to treat epilepsy and lung ailments. The Greeks would use the plant for just about everything but it was noted by a Roman naturalist that a balm made with mistletoe was effective for treating epilepsy.


Kissing under the mistletoe

Today mistletoe is used as a Christmas decoration and used to get someone to kiss you during the holidays. There are speculations where this tradition started but it could have possibly started with the Druids. It was a sacred symbol of vivacity and was used in hopes to restore fertility. They actually had a ceremonial gathering of the plant where they would wear white robes and cut the plant down with a golden knife. During the new year, the youth would also walk around with branches of mistletoe to celebrate the new year. This could be one reason why it became popular to have during Christmas and New Years.

There’s a story in Norse mythology where Loki manages to kill Baldur with an arrow made from mistletoe. The gods were able to bring him back and Frigg declared mistletoe a symbol of love and vowed to kiss on anyone who passed under it.

By the 18th century, mistletoe was a popular Christmas decoration. The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is first mentioned by English servants and eventually became popular in the middle class. It was considered bad luck if you did not accept a kiss under the mistletoe.


There are mentions of mistletoe being used as a folk remedy for cancer and there’s a possibility that might be a useful herb in treating cancer. Most studies done on mistletoe have been done in Europe on Viscum album. Mistletoe has been shown to improve the lives and possible survival rate of cancer patients. There have been some issues with testing mistletoe in its roll in treating cancer, such as bias and a small number of participants, but many of the studies have shown a positive effect. More research is needed but it looks like mistletoe could play a role in curing cancer.



Common Name: Mistletoe
Scientific NameViscum spp., Phoradendron spp.
Leaves- broad to scaled, simple, oblong-obovate
Stem- thick
Fruit- sticky, white-translucent
Harvest Time: Medicinal: before the plant fruits, Decoration: November-December
Parts Edible: Leaves
Found: North America: New Jersey to Florida, west to Illinois and Texas, Europe, Scandanavia south and east to N. Africa, central Asia, and Japan; parasite growing on deciduous trees

Historic Uses

Phoradendron leucarpum
-Dried leaves were once used to treat epilepsy, convulsions, vertigo, pleurisy, dysentery, lung ailments, and to stop bleeding during childbirth
-Tea was used for headaches, high blood pressure, lovesickness, as a contraceptive, and so induce an abortion
-Folk anticancer remedy in Mexico

Viscum album
-Used mainly to lower high blood pressure and heart rate, used to ease anxiety and promote sleep
-Has also been used to treat panic attacks, headaches, epilepsy, convulsions, improve concentration
-Topically it has been used to treat arthritis, rheumatism, chilblains, leg ulcers, and varicose veins
-It has been used to treat various cancers including, stomach, lung, ovary, breast, colon, and liver cancer


Vitamins, Minerals, & More

Phoradendron leucarpum – leaves

Properties: abortifacient, contraceptive, oxytoxic

Viscum album – leaves & young twigs

Properties: antispasmodic, cardiac, cytostatic, diuretic, hypotensive, narcotic, nervine, stimulant, tonic, vasodilator


-Dried leaves used for tea
-Infusion for washes



-All parts of the plant are poisonous, though the toxicity is very low
-Berries from Phoradendron leucarpum have been known to cause poisoning in people
-Do not eat the berries of any mistletoe
-Can cause dermatitis
-High dosages could cause vomiting, diarrhea, cramping, hypotension, coma, seizures, pupil dilation, and even death
-Injections could cause fever, chills, allergic reactions, and other side effects-
-Do not take if pregnant or breastfeeding. Could cause a miscarriage. Not safe for children
-Mistletoe berries are poisonous to dogs and cats!
-Do not take if you have an auto-immune disease, heart disease, leukemia, liver disease
-Stop taking mistletoe two weeks before surgery or if you have received an organ transplant
-Do not take mistletoe and consult your doctor if you are on any of these medications:

  • High blood pressure medications (Antihypertensive)
  • Immune system suppressants (Immunosuppressants)


-Mistletoe grows in clumps high up in trees. Shotguns were once used to shoot the plant out of the tree. Do not do this! While it is easier than climbing a tree it is not safe and can damage the tree.
-Use climbing gear or a pruning pole to safely retrieve the mistletoe
-For medicinal uses, the plant is best harvested before it begins to fruit
-For decorations, harvest the plant during November and December as the berries begin to ripen

Where to Purchase

Mistletoe Dried

Practicing Sustainable Wild Harvesting

  1. Only harvest plants you know are safe and can identify
  2. Only harvest plants in safe areas that are not contaminated or polluted
  3. Do not harvest on private property without permission
  4. Harvest no more than 10% or use the method: take 1 leave 2
  5. Know how to handle and prepare the plants you are harvesting
  6. Always check the legal status of the plant you want to harvest (is it endangered?)

mistletoe (1)


Missouri Botanical Garden
PFAF Phoradendron leucarpum
NIH European Mistletoe
WebMD European Mistletoe
PFAF Viscum album
Botanical Mistletoe
Why do we kiss under the mistletoe?
–Foster, Steven, and James Duke A. Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs: Of Eastern and Central North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. 386-387. Print.

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