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Mistletoe

Updated on April 3, 2013
Mistletoes thriving on host tress
Mistletoes thriving on host tress | Source
Mistletoe during winter in France.
Mistletoe during winter in France.

Mistletoes are a group of obligate hemi-parasitic plants that belong to the families Viscaceae and Loranthaceae, both these plant families are taxonomically related and are part of the order Santalales. The Viscaceae family is composed of seven genera namely Arceuthobium, Ginalloa, Dendrophthora, Phoradendron , Korthalsella, Notothixos, Viscum . There are over few hundred known species across the globe. The most notable and studied species of mistletoe is Viscum album L., the famous European white-berry mistletoe. Viscum album L. is an evergreen plant that grows hemi-parasitically on the stem of its host by deriving water and minerals from it, this Mistletoe never touches the earth and blooms during dead winter.

Besides being an important medicinal plant the evergreen mistletoe is a symbol of fertility and good luck, and kissing under branches of mistletoe during the Christmas tide is popular in many European countries and North America. This exchange of kisses is considered as a promise to marry and a forecast of happiness and long life.

History of Mistletoe

Theophrastus (371–287 BC) described mistletoe in his botanical treatise Historia Plantarum as an evergreen plant growing on pine and fir trees, used for feeding animals during harsh winters. He acknowledged that mistletoe does not grow on the earth, and its seeds are spread through birds’ excreta that feed on mistletoe berries. Celtic Druids considered mistletoe sacred primarily because of the ability of this plant to remain flourishing green even in dead winter without having roots on the earth. They considered this plant a symbol of ever-lasting life.

Pliny the Elder(23–79 AC) the legendary roman naturalist and author of Historica Naturalis reported that the Druids followed ceremonious removal of mistletoe growing on oak trees using a golden sickle on the sixth day after new moon. They considered the plant to augment fertility and an antidote for poisons. They believed it to possess miraculous properties to cure every illness due to its’ all healing abilities.

During the middle ages Mistletoe alone or in combination with other aromatic substances was used as incense allowed one to get in contact with “elementary power of nature” and to find the “inner stability”1. Purifying of houses, animals and men with incenses made using blend of these herbs was suggested as protection against lightning, bad dreams, evil spirits and bad spells. 2.

According to Nordic mythology as described in the “Edda” (Snorri Shurlason, 1200 AC), which is a collection of ancient Viking poems, the god of shamans (Odin) and the goddess of love and beauty (Free) bound all being of earth from ever harming their son Balder. However, the tiny mistletoe did not take root in the earth, and therefore, was not bound to the oath. Balder was killed at Loki’s instigation by a twig of mistletoe (mistilteinn) shot by his blind brother Hödur.

History of medicinal uses of Mistletoe

Mistletoe has been used in a number of indications during the known history.

Hippocrates of Cos (460–370 BC) used mistletoe to treat diseases of the spleen and complaints associated with menstruation as reported by Pedanius Dioscorides (40-90 AD) author of five volume treatise on natural medicines De Materia Medica. Pliny the Elder (23–79 AD) reported mistletoe from oak trees, when applied as a chewed pulp, to be beneficial for epilepsy, infertility, and ulcers. Aulus Cornelius Celsus reported the use of mistletoe in the treatment of swellings or tumours in the fifth volume of his medical treatise De Medicina. Alexandrian physician and surgeon Paulus Aegineta (625–690 AC), and the Persian philosopher and physician Avicenna (Ibn-Sina, 980–1037 AC) were also familiar with Mistletoe although it is not clear how they employed it in treatment3.

Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179) described mistletoe as a treatment for diseases of spleen and liver in a treaties about natural history and medicinal uses of plants, animals and stones. Paracelsus (1493–1541) the German-swiss physician, botanist and occultist recommended epileptics to wear oak mistletoe on their right hand to prevent episodes of epilepsy.

Tabernaemontanus reported in a collection of herbal remedies that mistletoe that has never touched the ground is useful for childhood epilepsy, when applied as a pulverised drug, or when worn as a silver-amulet. He also listed use of mistletoe in treatment of worm infestations in children, in management of labor pains, gout, and affections of lung and liver4. Tabernaemontanus also reported that mistletoe was used in treating leprosy when applied with wine. When applied as a plaster, mistletoe was suggested to be beneficial in the treatment of mumps and fractures, while binding mistletoe leaves to the palms and sole will heal hepatitis 4.

18th century onwards mistletoe found application in management of “weakness of the heart” and oedema. The homeopathic materia medica still indicates use of tincture of Viscum album today5,6.

By 19th century physicians were losing interest in mistletoe, disregarding it as folklore medicine. However in 1906 Gaultier reported a blood pressure lowering effect of mistletoe extract. He further investigated the effect of oral or subcutaneous applications of fresh Viscum album L. extracts on blood pressure in man and in animals during 1907 to 1910. This event renewed the interest of medical fraternity in mistletoe. On the basis of demonstrated ability of mistletoe extracts to cause hypotension, act as diuretic, improve cardiac tone, check hemorrhage, and act as antispasmodic, therapeutic directions were laid down7. Although later in 1928 based on a clinical trial of 100 human subjects suffering from hypertension, it was suggested that oral doses are ineffective.8

Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) introduced Viscum album L. in cancer treatment in the year 19209. Since then, clinical evaluations of mistletoe as an adjuvant cancer treatment have expanded. Later in 1965, Vester and Nienhaus isolated carcinostatic protein fractions which were recognized later as viscotoxins and mistletoe lectins.10

Historical uses of Mistletoe outside Europe

In Africa different tribes used different species of mistletoe differently. The Xhosa used a decoction of a Viscum subspecies in lumbago and sore throat, while a Loranthus subspecies was used as a poultice for orchids in Southern Rhodesia 12. Zulus used Loranthus and Viscum subspecies as enema for stomach troubles in children. Viscum aethiopicum was a remedy to treat diarrhoea. Nigerian folk medicine practitioners employed Loranthus bengwensis L. to treat diabetes mellitus. 16

In South America Ligaria cuneifolia commonly known as Argentine mistletoe is used in local folk medicine to treat hypertension and as an external remedy to stabilize bone fractures. 11Phoradendron subspecies was used by native Americans as abortifacient The Northern American mistletoe (Phoradendron subspecies) was used by the Native Americans as an abortifacient15. In Japanese folk medicine, mistletoe (Taxillus kaempferi) was used in management of hypotension 13 and the chinese used mistletoes (Sangjisheng; Ramulis Loranthi et Visci: Viscum coloratum (Kom.) Nakai, Loranthus parasitikus (L.) Merr., Loranthus yadoriki Sieb.) to treat hypertension, spasms of the heart, rheumatic pain, threatened abortion and frostbite14.

Mistletoe in Africa

A number of Mistletoes are found on African continent, however most prevalent are the mistletoes belonging to Genus Viscum. Around 45 species in Africa and another 30 in Madagascar have been reported. Pohil and Weins in 1998 provisionally divided the African mistletoes in eleven groups based on features exhibited by the species.

These groups are summarized in the table:

Name of group
Member species
Distribution
Viscum triflorum group.
Viscum triflorum, Viscum petiolatum
Widespread indiverse forests of Africa.
Viscum congolense group
Viscum congolense , Viscum fischeri , Viscum luisengense
Forests of Congolian region and EastAfrica
Viscum rotundifolium group
Viscum rotundifolium L.f., Viscum pauciflorum, L.f., Viscum schaeferi
South African shrublands
Viscum tuberculatum group
Viscum tuberculatum ,Viscum obovatum
Eastern Rift zone and SE. African coastal region, in drier forests and associated bushland
Viscum decurrens group
Viscum decurrens
Congolian forest
Viscum album group
Viscum album L., Viscumcruciatum
Atlas Mts. of North Africa.
Viscum obscurum group
Viscum obscurum ,Viscum oreophilum, Viscum crassulae, Viscum subserratum
South African woodlands and shrublands
Viscum longiarticulatum group
Viscum longiarticulatum
East African basement-complex mountains (Usambaras)
Viscum shirense group.
Viscum engleri, Viscum anceps, Viscum combreticola, Viscum shirense, Viscumgoetzei, Viscum cylindricum, Viscum congdoni.
Eastern and southern African forests, woodlands and shrublands
Viscum menyharthii group
Viscum menyharthii, Viscum chyuluense, Viscum littorum,Viscum verrucosum, Viscum subverrucosum, Viscum calvinii, Viscum gracile, ViscumGriseum, Viscum continuum, Viscum hildebrandtii, Viscum tenue
Zambezian and East African woodlands
Viscum bagshawei
Viscum dielsianum, Viscum capense, Viscum hoolei, Viscum minimum, Viscum grandicaule, Viscum schimperi, Viscum bagshawei, Viscum loranthicola, Viscum iringense
Widespread in forest and drier habitats of africa
Source: Adapted form Mistletoes of Africa 17

Medicinal uses of African Mistletoes

Medicinal uses of African Mistletoe Not much has been written about medicinal uses of various species of mistletoe, however some references are available in current literature. Viscum fischeri and Viscum tuberculatum have been used in Kenya as a poultice on the chest for pneumonia. Viscum tuberculatum has also been employed for liver troubles 18. In southern Africa both African and European cultures employ Viscum capense and Viscum rotundifolium for medicinal purposes. Europeans use these plants to remove warts. Viscum capense has also been used for bronchial problems, as astringent and as a blood coagulant19. Teemohlware a herbal tea made using Viscum rotundifolium is believed to cure heart ailments and purify blood 20.

Korthalsella Japonica
Korthalsella Japonica | Source

Mistletoes in East Asia

Like other parts of world mistletoes are distributed in East-Asian countries too. They have been recognized as therapeutic herbs in China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea and other East Asian cultures21. In traditional medicine mistletoes, in East Asia, are employed as analgesic, sedative, spasmolytic, cardiotonic and anticancer agent; the herbs are also used to strengthen tendons and bones, tone the liver and kidneys, expel pathogens associated with rheumatism, stabilize the fetus and cause lactogenesis22. In southwest China Loranthus parasiticus is employed in treatment of brain diseases29.

While the European mistletoe has been studied intensively, we know less about East-Asian populations of mistletoes as therapeutic herbs, especially in the light of modern medicinal approach. However as per recent studies, Viscum album, var. coloratum growing in Korea shows similar cytotoxic and immunological activities as compared to those of European mistletoe. Extracts from Viscum album, var. coloratum have inhibitory effects on tumor angiogenesis and metastasis. 23

Some prominent species of mistletoe found in East Asia are given in the table below

Some prominent East Asian species of mistletoe

Name
Distribution
Charecteristics
<em>Korthalsella japonica Engler </em>
Korea and Japan
small degenerated leaves are protruded from the lots of joints of the green stem
<em>Loranthus parasiticus Merr </em>
China
red brown flowers, elliptical berries, ovate or oblong broad leaves
<em>Loranthus tanakae</em>
Korea
Yellow berry Mistletoe
<em>Taxillus kaempferi Seib. </em>
Japan
Yellow berry with broad leaves
<em>Viscum album var. coloratum for. Rubroaurantiacum</em>
Cheju island, the southernmost island of Korea.
Redberry Mistletoe
<em>Viscum album var.coloratum </em>
Northern part of China and Japan, the korean penisula
Yellow berry Mistletoe
<em>Taxillus kaempferi Danser </em>
Japan
 
Some prominent species of mistletoe found in East Asia 23

Mistletoes in South America

Hemi-parasite plants belonging to the mistletoe species that are taxonomically related to the European mistletoe (Viscum album L.), are found in the flora of South America. The important ones are listed in the table below.

Name
Distribution
Uses
Phoradendron pruinosum
Brazil, Northeast Argentina, southern Bolivia, Paraguay 24, 25
Management of cardiac disorders. 25
Phoradendron liga
Argentina, Bolivia
Management of high blood pressure and cardiac disorders. 25, used as a substitute of European Mistletoe.
Phoradendron hieronymi
Argentina
Treatment of Asthma 25
Tripodanthus acutifolius
It is found in northeasternArgentina, south-central Brazil Uruguay, Guiana Highlands, In Andean region from Ecuador to northwestern Argentina. It is also found in Colombia.
Used during corpus Christi festivity.
Tristerix corymbosus
South America
Source of a viscous substance called viscina or liga used for trapping insects.27
Ligaria cuneifolia
South America
Source of a viscous substance called viscina or liga used for trapping insects.27
Eubrachion ambiguum
south of Brazil
Treatment of lumbar aches and pneumonia.28
Ligaria cuneifolia var. cuneifolia
Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Uruguay.
Acts as hypotensive, immuno-modulator and induces apoptosis. substitute for the European mistletoe (Viscum album L.)28

European migrants and descendants, according to both morphologic and habitat similarities, chose L. cuneifolia var. cuneifolia as the natural substitute for the European mistletoe (Viscum album L.). Infusions of leaves and stems have thus been used for their putative ability to decrease high blood pressure. This species is the most widely used mistletoe in Argentina and is popularly known as “liga”, “liguilla” or “muérdago criollo” (Argentine mistletoe).

L. cuneifolia var. cuneifolia, exerts distinct effects: hypotension, immuno-modulation and induction of apoptosis. Incubation of murine cells with acellular extracts of the plant resulted in an antiproliferative effect on both, activated splenocytes and leukaemic cells, while normal splenocytes were stimulated. Apart from the induction of an apoptotic cell death in leukemic cells, the plant enhances the production of macrophage nitric oxide.

Natural Propagation of Mistletoe

Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus)
Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus) | Source
Male Blackcap bird ( Sylvia atricapilla )
Male Blackcap bird ( Sylvia atricapilla )

Birds like Mistle Thrush and blackcap that feeds on mistletoe berries naturally propagate mistletoe. These birds remove the seeds along with mesocarp from the fruit and bring it in contact with sites on host trees. These seeds firmly attach to the host branches when the gum like mesocarp dries out along with the seed. If the climate is not suitable(too cold) the embryos may not germinate immediately, after March embryo begins to grow and elongated hypocotyl may be seen.

The hypocotyl epidermal cells secrete a viscous liquid that helps the new mistletoe attach itself directly to the host tree. In addition to mechanical forces, enzymes are released by mistletoe that probably aid opening up of the host tissues The tip of the hypocotyl broadens to a flat disk, the so-called holdfast, and the papillae connected to the host are drawn to the periphery, opening up the host periderm layer by layer. The slightly oval holdfast shows bilateral symmetry, including a meristematic zone along the major axis and adjacent to the host bark. With cell divisions starting from here, the meristematic tissue is penetrating into the opened up host periderm. Thus mistletoe attaches itself to the host to derive necessary nutrients for its survival.

Fruits of red berry mistletoe  Viscum Cruciatum
Fruits of red berry mistletoe Viscum Cruciatum | Source
Viscum album
Viscum album | Source
Fruits of  Viscum album, the white berry mistletoe
Fruits of Viscum album, the white berry mistletoe | Source

European mistletoes

Although a number of mistletoes are found in Europe the two most widely recognized are Viscum cruciatum ex Boiss. and Viscum album L., the later has been studied extensively and has become almost synonymous to European Mistletoe.

Viscum cruciatum

A poisonous species of mistletoe, Viscum crucitatum is native to South Spain and East Portugal. In addition to spain and Portugal, It is also found in Australia , North Africa and Asia. The most striking feature of this mistletoe are its red berries that are 6 to 10 mm in size, hence the plant is also called red berry mistletoe. The stem of Viscum. Cruciatum is up to 60 cm long, yellowish green. Leaves are 2–4 cm long and 1 to 2 cm broad, often whorled, obovate-oblong, obtuse, yellowish green. Cymes shortly predunculate.

Viscum album


Common names

German: Mistel, Vogelmistel, Leimmistel, Affolter, Bocksfutter, Drudenfuá, Elfklatte, Geiákrut, Guomol, Hexenbesen, Hexennest, Immergrüne, Kluster, Marenklatte, Marentaken, Mischgle, Mischgelt, Misple, Nistle, Uomol, Vogelchrut, Vogelkläb, Vogellim, Wespe, Wintergrün, Wispen, Wäsp.

English: mistletoe, all-heal, masslin.

French: gui, gui commun, gui de druides.

Italian: vischio, visco, vescovaggine, guatrice, pania, scoaggine.

Spanish: muerdago.

Viscum album L. the white berry European mistletoe is widely distributed in Central Europe, Southwest-and East Asia. The European population can be classified into three different sub species according to the host on which they grow. The sub species are:

  1. Viscum album. ssp. platyspermum Kell. (ssp. album): this sub species in found on hardwood trees.
  2. Viscum album L. ssp. abietis Beck: the host for this species are Fir trees( Abies species)
  3. Viscum album L. ssp. laxum Fick: found on Pine trees but on rare occasion may be seen growing on Spruce trees also.

Cultivation of Mistletoe Viscum Album L. on oak trees

Mistletoe cultivation especially cultivation of Viscum album L. on oak trees has gained importance due to it’s use in anthroposophical mistletoe preparations. The demand of mistletoe twigs is also witnessed during Christmas season in Europe, America and Australia due to cultural beliefs associated with mistletoe.

To ensure a constant supply and quality of the oak grown Viscum Album L as a pharmaceutical raw material efforts were made to cultivate this mistletoe on oaks.

The pioneers of oak mistletoe cultivation experienced difficulties in transferring Viscum album on indigenous oaks. Experimental sowing of mistletoe seed did not prove a promising method for the detection of mistletoe-receptive specimens of Quercus robur and Quercus petraea 30.

This resistance was overcome by selecting mistletoe bearing oaks and their progenies as host tress. The success rate considerably increased in this manner. Today French oaks that bear V. album plants naturally are used for oak mistletoe cultivation31.

Over 200 different specimens of mistletoe bearing oaks have been isolated in France. Whereas in America over 450 different specimens of American oak (Q. rubra, Q.palustris, Q. coccinea) that bear mistletoe Viscum Album L. have been identified. Hence to get optimum results a mistletoe bearing specimen should be selected from the following oak species.31

Quercus. Robur, Quercus petraea, Quercus rubra, Quercus. palustris, Quercus coccinea, Ulmus sp.

To get suitable host oaks following approaches may be useful:31

  1. The obvious and most simple method is to sow mistletoe on mistletoe-bearing oaks naturally present in the wild. Success rate can be improved by applying vital mistletoe seeds to young branches of mistletoe oaks growing in the wild.
  2. Sowing acorns from mistletoe-bearing oaks: This gives high percentage of mistletoe-receptive progeny (12–19%). The method of choice is lining out in nursery style, as selecting suitable specimens becomes easy.
  3. Grafting: Using this method mistletoes can be grown in regions where mistletoe bearing oak trees are rare to find. Scions of mistletoe-bearing oaks are grafted on to any oak material of local origin. By grafting the growing tree assumes the “physiological age” of the scions, which may affect mistletoe production. .
  4. Rooting mistletoe-bearing oak cuttings: This is a complex technique and requires expertise and equipment. Like grafting, growth and mistletoe production are likely to be limited if cuttings are of a greater physiological age.

Mistletoe-bearing oaks are not only rare but also tend to bear only a small number of mistletoe bushes on them. Three quarters (74.0%) of all mistletoe-bearing indigenous oaks (Q. robur and Q.petraea) bear only 1–5 mistletoe bushes. The corresponding percentages are also high for Quercu. Rubra, Quercus palustris/coccinea and Ulmus sp. at about 50%. Experimental sowing of mistletoe seed on wild-growing indigenous mistletoe bearing oaks showed that about 40% of the trees would not accept new mistletoe plants, even if repeated sowing were made31.

Green colored mistletoe hypercotyl emerging from a mistletoe seed attached to the bark of host tree.
Green colored mistletoe hypercotyl emerging from a mistletoe seed attached to the bark of host tree.
mistletoe hypercotyl attaching to bark of host tree
mistletoe hypercotyl attaching to bark of host tree
Primary leaves of mistletoe
Primary leaves of mistletoe

Seeds, soil and plantation considerations

Site conditions also play important role in large scale and long-term mistletoe cultivation. Host oak trees should have adequate water supply to compensate for the relatively high transpiration rate of mistletoe32. Detailed soil analysis in France showed that approximately 80% of mistletoe-bearing oaks grow in moderate to highly acidic soils for which relatively low lime and high iron and manganese levels are typical 33.

Viable mistletoe seeds can be obtained from miltletoe fruits between October to May. However best time for sowing mistletoe seeds is from third week of March and to third week of May. If seeds are applied during winter or autumn, it is often eaten by tits34, moreover during winter few birds feed exclusively on mistletoe fruits thus limiting the availability of seeds.

Follwing steps are suggested for sowing seeds if Viscum Album L. on oak trees.

Step 1. Collect and store seeds for sowing it between mid-march and mid-may: Fruits with the intentions of harvesting seeds are collected from January. The exocarp is removed, thus seeds with a sticky and pulpy mesocarp remain. This is allowed to dehydrate in shade but not in dark, as mistletoe embryos lose vitality if stored in dark. The dehydrated seeds can safely be stored until the sowing season. Exposure to light should be ensured for mistletoe seeds, however live tissues should not be heated as it looses vitality.

Step 2. Sowing of Stored seeds on Host tree: The stored seeds are soacked in water for five to six hours to rejuvenate the dried up mesocarp, the sticky mesocarp helps the seed to adhere to the host branches. Using forceps seeds are transferred to the bark of host branches. Seeds are applied to young branches in the host periphery to avoid damage to the central trunk by sinker of the mistletoe.

The sown seeds should be protected initially with light permeable wire gauze, leaving adequate space for growth. This protects the seeds from snails, birds and other organisms that might eat or dislodge the seed from the site.

Step 3. Monitor results: A successful plantation can be considered when following signs are visible chronologically:

  • Hypocotyl comes out and makes holdfast that remains green.
  • Distinct swelling is observed under the holdfast.
  • Hypocotyl comes upright
  • Primary leaves, two in number, grow from the bud on the shoot.

Chemical Constituents Of European Mistletoe -Viscum Album L.

Visucm Album Extracts have been analyzed extensively for it’s chemical constituents in the last century. The summary of these finding are given in this section.

Mistletoe preparations used therapeutically are complex plant extracts containing a wide variety of substances ranging from high molecular weight proteins to low molecular weight compounds such as flavonoids and others. Few noteworthy chemical entities identified in mistletoe extracts that are worth mentioning are thionins (viscotoxins), carbohydrate-binding proteins (lectins), flavonoids , Alkaloids, Phenylpropanoids, Phytosterols, Triterpenes, Polyalcohols, Monosaccharides, Oligo- and Polysaccharides.

Cetain lectins found specifically in mistletoe extract collectively called as Mistletoe Lectins (ML) are subject of evaluation for immunomodulation and cytotoxic effect of Miltletoe extract obtained from Viscum Album.

The content of proteins, polypeptides and carbohydrates in mistletoe extract is effected by the host tree and other natural factors like sex, local climate, harvesting time, parts and age of plant used etc35. The common host trees for mistletoe Viscum Album in Europe are apple tree, acer, robinia, poplar, wallow, and oak.

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3. Foy, G. (1887) Mistletoe. Med. Press and Circular, pp. 588.
4. Tabernaemontanus, J.T. (1731) Kräuterbuch. Johann Ludwig König, Basel, pp. 1376–1377.
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