The holly and the ivy. And the mistletoe

The three herbs that are associated with Christmas are Holly (Ilex aquifolium), Ivy (Hedra helix) and Mistletoe (Viscum album). While all three are decorative features of the Christian festival, their original ceremonial use is rooted in paganism.

Holly, a member of the Aquifoliaceae, is evergreen and grows to 6m. It was thought to guard against evil in Druidic societies and they decked their dwellings with it at the time of the winter solstice. In Roman times Holly was exchanged at the December festival of Saturnalia, a tradition that was adopted by early Christians and is the reason for its prominence as a Christmas decoration. Anglo-Saxons used it to treat congested lungs. Holly is little used today but in the past was used to treat fevers, jaundice and rheumatism. While the berries are toxic and can be dangerous to children, they make a most efficient purge for adults. There is an Ilex vomitoria, which is self explanatory, and probably not required by those who prefer alchohol.

One of the most popular Christmastime accoutrements, holly has sharp edges, symbolic of the crown of thorns worn by Jesus at His crucifixion. The red berries represent blood.

Ivy, an evergreen climber and a member of the Araliaceae, is a woodland plant that will carpet the ground and climb any obstruction. Now a common house-plant or garden ornamental it was once thought to possess magical powers. Ivy was dedicated to Bacchus, the god of wine, and was worn as garlands during the Bacchinalia as it was thought to guard against intoxication, which would seem to make the ceremony a bit pointless.

Pharmaceutically the plant has anti-spasmodic and cardiac actions; small doses dilate the blood vessels while large ones constrict them and slow the heart beat. It was used to treat whooping cough and a tincture made from the berries and vinegar was used in the Great Plague of London. All parts of the plant are toxic and contact with leaves may cause dermatitis although the early New England settlers made poultices to treat swollen glands and leg ulcers with ivy. Like holly, the berries are a powerful purge which may explain its popularity at Christmas time.

We now come to the most potent and mysterious of the Christmas herbs, mistletoe. A member of the Loranthaceae, it is a parasitic evergreen shrub which forms bunches up to 3m across on host trees. The leaves are yellowy green and it produces sticky white berries that ripen in late autumn. It favours old apple trees but can be found on ash, hawthorn and oak. Anyone who has travelled through Normandy in winter will recall its abundance in the apple orchards.

The plant attained mythical status in many ancient societies; it was the ‘golden bough’ that saved Aeneas from the underworld. In Norse legends it was a bough of mistletoe that was used to kill Balder, the god of peace. This has given rise to the custom of kissing under the mistletoe as after his death the plant was entrusted to the Norse goddess of love. Personally I never thought of mistletoe as being weighty enough to kill a god.

Perhaps mistletoe is most associated with the Druids, they were said to remove it by using a golden knife, it was thought to protect them from all evil and they would sanctify the trees on which it grew. It is from this period that the reputed healing powers of the plant arose. The early Roman physicians Dioscorides and Galen knew that the Druids used the berries to treat topical tumours and they continued the practice. Hippocrates recorded its use in the treatment of cancer and epilepsy. In 18th century England it was a treatment for convulsions, hysteria and delirium.

Today it is applied to lower blood pressure and as an immune system enhancer. Mistletoe preparations have been used in the treatment of cancer since l926, when a fermented product, Iscador, was made from the crude pressed juice of the berry, which stimulates the thymus gland and promotes ‘killer cell’ activity and leads to a ‘walling off’ of the tumour.

The prominence of these plants at Christmas may be that they are evergreen, available and attractive, or perhaps the ancients anticipated our need for them on the occasion of enforced gluttony.