VOL. 115 DECEMBER 1, 2014 MISTLETOE and POINSETTIA, REVEALED

hubDespite its strong association with romance during the Christmas season, mistletoe has a less than charming back story. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that attaches itself to other trees to steal nourishment from them. Its berries are eaten by birds who then spread the seeds for new plants in their droppings. The seeds in the droppings stick to the bark of certain trees and burrow a root down through its bark. “Mistel” is an old English word for bird dung. “Toe” is derived from a word for “twig”. So, one could translate “mistletoe” as “poop on a stick”. (1)

Mistletoe was one of few plants still green during the winter for both Norseman and the Druids. The Norse considered it a symbol of love and friendship. The Druids noticed that it had berries, and they used them to encourage friendship while controlling kisses.  A berry was pulled off the sprig for each kiss. When there were no more berries, there were no more kisses.

“The physiological effect of the [ingested] plant is to lessen and temporarily benumb such nervous action as is reflected to distant organs of the body from some central organ which is the actual seat of trouble. In this way the spasms of epilepsy and of other convulsive distempers are allayed. Large doses of the plant, or of its berries, would, on the contrary, aggravate these convulsive disorders. Young children have been attacked with convulsions after eating freely of the berries.”

“In a French work on domestic remedies, 1682, Mistletoe (gui de chêne) was considered of great curative power in epilepsy. Sir John Colbatch published in 1720 a pamphlet on The Treatment of Epilepsy by Mistletoe, regarding it as a specific for this disease. He procured the parasite from the Lime trees at Hampton Court, and recommended the powdered leaves, as much as would lie on a sixpence, to be given in Black Cherry water every morning. He was followed in this treatment by others who have testified to its efficacy as a tonic in nervous disorders, considering it the specific herb for St. Vitus’s Dance. It has been employed in convulsions delirium, hysteria, neuralgia, nervous debility, urinary disorders, heart disease, and many other complaints arising from a weakened and disordered state of the nervous system.” (2)

“The tincture has been recommended as a heart tonic in typhoid fever in place of Foxglove [digitalis]. It lessens reflex irritability and strengthens the heart’s beat, whilst raising the frequency of a slow pulse. It is stated that in Sweden, persons afflicted with epilepsy carry about with them a knife having a handle of Oak Mistletoe to ward off attacks.”

Poinsettia derives its common English name from Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States Minister to Mexico, who introduced the plant into the United States in 1825. Despite its reputation, poinsettia are NOT poisonous for children and pets. According to the POISINDEX information source – the primary resource used by the majority of poison control centers nationwide – “a child who weighed 50 lbs. would have to eat over 500 poinsettia leaves to reach an even potentially toxic dose of compounds in the poinsettia plant.”  Doctors at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Poison Center conducted a review of 22,793 reported cases of poinsettia exposures, the majority (93%) of which occurred in children, and found that 92% of those exposed did not develop any symptoms at all. Ninety-six per cent of those exposed were not even treated in a health care facility. Furthermore, no deaths resulting from poinsettia ingestion have ever been documented. (3)

Even though accidental ingestion of poinsettia leaves will not damage your body or kill you, it may lead to nausea and vomiting in some cases. Since the taste of poinsettia leaves is reportedly very unpleasant, it is unlikely that a child or animal who attempts to eat or chew the leaves will continue to do so after the first taste.

Boy, this blog about two beautiful warm, fuzzy Christmas plants reads like it was written by Debbie Downer. Maybe by the next blog I’ll be more in the Christmas spirit.

References:
1. http://www.whychristmas.com/customs/mistletoe.shtml
2. http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/m/mistle40.html
3. http://www.medicinenet.com/are_poinsettia_plants_poisonous_fact_or_fiction/views.htm

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