Festive herbs like mistletoe, pine, holly and ivy are all part of historic medicinal traditions that have been mostly forgotten - except, of course, by herbalists!
Throughout history, we have turned to evergreen trees and plants as nourishing winter tonics when other foliage is sparse on the ground. Energetically, tree medicine is also especially grounding for this reflective time of year.
Evergreen forests are places of quiet contemplation, full of mystery and, as a wise herbalist once said:
“How a plant is in the world, is how it will be in you.” Christopher Hedley (1946-2017)
With their sticky, prickly, majestic leaves and shiny toxic berries, these plants serve much more than a purely decorative purpose - both in terms of human health and the wider winter ecosystem.
Medicinal Mistletoe (Viscum album)
Mistletoe is a semi-parasitic plant that lives on other trees and increases year-round leaf litter, supporting local birdlife. Exactly why people started kissing underneath it is uncertain, but the practice is thought to have roots in a Scandinavian legend involving the goddess of Love.
Viscum, meaning sticky, refers to the toxic white berries employed in medicine from the time of Hippocrates (460-370 BC). It was a sacred plant to the Celts and Romans, and used in disorders of the nervous system such as convulsions, hysteria, neuralgia, and cardiovascular troubles.
In modern-day herbalism, mistletoe is no less revered. It is thought of as a nervine herb that promotes contemplation, reflection and recovery - especially following the loss of a loved one.
In my clinic I use it for exactly that, particularly when combined with high blood pressure. It is a powerful heart tonic, reducing heart rate and opening up the circulation by relaxing blood vessels.
Although not strictly herbal, mistletoe’s immune-enhancing properties have made it the focus of recent cancer research in the form of the injected preparation Iscador.
It is certainly not an herb to be taken lightly - aside from the poisonous berries, mistletoe should not be used in combination with asthma medication or during pregnancy, and due to its powerful cardiac properties it should always be administered by a trained herbalist. .
Powerful Pine (Pinus spp)
Pine is a powerful, stimulating antiseptic, used chiefly for respiratory infections with thick mucus, to draw phlegm out of the lungs.
Interestingly, decomposition of evergreen needles in forests also lowers the pH of the surrounding soil, promoting an acidic and therefore less fertile environment.
Since the Middle Ages almost every part of the pine tree - needles, bark and sap - has been used for medicine at some stage.
Pine needle syrup is also used in coughs and asthma, and to provide a winter boost of vitamin C. Essential oils in the needles account for its aromatic qualities and decongestant effects.
The bark is harder to harvest, but an extract of pine bark called Pycogenol has been recently shown to have anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-histamine and circulatory stimulant properties.
To get the benefits of pine into your home, simply pick a handful of needles and infuse in hot water (10-15 minutes), apple cider vinegar (4 weeks) or make into a delicious homemade evergreen syrup (see below) which can be added to hot water, porridge, pancakes, or taken straight for winter sniffles.
So if you’re lucky enough to have a real Christmas tree this year, you’re in for a treat! Most pines are safe to use with the exception of Pinus ponderosa, which pregnant women should avoid.
Pine needle syrup
1 cup pine needles
1 cup filtered water
1 cup sugar
Bring the water and pine needles to a gentle boil for 10-15 minutes, then strain the pine needles out and return the water to the heat. Add the sugar and bring the mixture almost to boiling point, removing immediately from the heat at this point and leaving to cool. When cool, pour into a bottle or jar, refrigerate and use as needed. It should last 3-6 months if not contaminated.
Holly in history (Ilex aquifolium)
Despite having fallen completely out of use, this prickly little number has some impressive historical applications.
Holly leaves were mainly used as a diaphoretic - a herb that stimulates circulation to the peripheries, encourages sweating and thereby brings down a fever (Grieve, 1931).
An infusion of holly was given in pneumonia and smallpox and, sure enough, modern research has found the leaves to boast antioxidant, antibacterial and antifungal activity.
The poisonous berries, high in saponins, are violent purgatives, inducing vomiting and diarrhoea. They were commonly employed in the treatment of ‘dropsy’ - an old medical term for swelling in the ankles caused by heart failure.
Nicholas Culpeper, a 16th century herbalist, considered the berries to be curative of colic. He also thought the bark and leaves were “excellently good, being used in fomentations for broken bones.” I wouldn’t recommend that anyone try this one at home, however.
Incredible Ivy (Hedera helix)
Common ivy is now an uncommon addition to the holiday greenery, but this humble plant was used in Christmas decorations for centuries before its association with paganism saw it fall out of festive favour.
It is also unclear why the plant is not more widely used in modern herbalism. First of all, as an invasive species, we are not short of it in Europe. Secondly, Culpeper held it in high esteem - he used it to treat dysentery, jaundice, intestinal parasites and even the plague.
Thirdly, ivy leaf is a powerful bronchodilator, anti-spasmodic and expectorant medicine, recommended for use in acute and chronic bronchitis in adults and children on the basis of 18 clinical studies.
Saponins in the leaves, especially alpha hederin, are thought to help relax the lung smooth muscle and draw up mucus. Deeply penetrating nanoparticles isolated from the sticky exudate of common ivy have also been investigated as potential carriers for cancer-fighting drugs.
However, one only has to look at a wall of ivy, sprawling up to cover huge areas, often without roots, to imagine what it is doing in the lungs.
To make a fresh tincture of ivy, simply pour vodka over a jar packed full of the leaves and leave in a cool, dark place for 4 weeks before straining and bottling.
Go on, experiment - you will only be contributing to the re-awakening of old medical knowledge and, along with pine syrup, it might make a great Christmas present!