“The first medicinal plant used specifically for cancer”.
Mistletoe – a jewel among plants
Mistletoe is a unique plant. We see its striking spheres high up in the crowns of bare winter trees. With its bony branches, dark-green foliage and shiny white berries it is the hallmark of every Christmas market.
Many associate mistletoe with Getafix’s magic potion. Armed with his golden sickle, the wise druid climbs up into oak trees in order to harvest the rare oak mistletoe which gives Asterix and Obelix the supernatural strength they need to defend the integrity and freedom of their small Gaulish village and fight off the Roman occupants.
This modern myth, presented with such humour and lightness, is actually based on scientific and historical facts. Mistletoe has been an important healing plant for three thousand years.
Order as a healing force
Mistletoe is also the first medicinal plant to be used specifically against cancer. In complementary cancer care this potential of the mistletoe, discovered a hundred years ago, has been put to the test. The plant’s specific healing power derives from its particular formative forces which are reflected in its spherical shape, evergreen foliage and pearly white berries. Tumours grow uncontrolled in time and space, irrespective of the healthy organ’s boundaries. Mistletoe, on the other hand, adheres to a particular spatial and temporal order. Every branch has the same, very basic structure: a stem, two simple leaves and, in between, the equally simple inflorescence from which the characteristic fruit develops seven to nine months later. Blossoming and fruit-forming are much delayed, however, and only occur in the plant’s second year.
Its own rhythm
Mistletoe not only develops very slowly, it also follows the rhythm of the seasons, but does this in its own way. It blossoms in the winter, long before the trees unfold the finery of their blossoms and leaves. The pollen and nectar of the male and female mistletoe are welcome nourishment for a multitude of winter-active insects and even bees. In high summer all the mistletoe organs change direction: rather than continue to give themselves to the light with an abundance of leaves they turn inward and form blossoms and seeds.
Integrity and autonomy
The plant’s tendency, in the summer, to detach itself from the surrounding forces and to turn inward, increases in the winter. It even emancipates itself largely from its host tree: while the tree’s life withdraws into the roots, seeking shelter in the earth, the evergreen mistletoe sits high in the bare crown of the tree, defying winter’s cold and darkness.
Continuously nurtured by the light, the evergreen mistletoe reveals a tendency we usually only find in humans: the tendency to detach itself from the forces of nature and from other beings in order to meet the challenges of the world alone. This characteristic is reflected in the intentions of mistletoe therapy, which not only aims to strengthen body and soul, but also the patient’s integrity and autonomy.
A rare treasure
In his Natural History, the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (24–79 AD) wrote that oak mistletoe, which was sought after by the druids because of its universal healing power, was difficult to find even in the Gaulish period. In 1923, the botanist Karl von Tubeuf could only document fifty locations in all of Europe, most of them in France. This natural distribution, however limited, formed the foundation for the first oak mistletoe preparations used in cancer therapy in 1927. Starting in 1949, the co-workers of the Association for Cancer Research in Arlesheim (CH) undertook extended field trips through France. As a result, the known number of common and Durmast oaks bearing the common mistletoe (Viscum album) has increased almost tenfold. As a way of replenishing these natural populations, the Association soon embarked on an ambitious project and has, for four decades now, been cultivating a few hundred mistletoe-bearing oaks on several hectares of land. When cultivating oak mistletoe for therapeutic purposes one not only needs to plan decades ahead, one also has to be prepared for all kinds of adversity. The mistletoe researchers had to learn, for instance, that certain soil properties are indispensable for mistletoe to thrive on oak trees. They also had to reassure the foresters that neighbouring mistletoe plantations would not harm beech trees or common indigenous oaks, because both are mistletoe-resistant.
Dutch elm disease and climatic fluctuations pose a threat to mistletoe
Elm-grown mistletoe, used by expert physicians to treat lung cancer, for instance, is at risk. Because Dutch elm disease, which is rampant across Europe, has destroyed almost all the natural populations of elm mistletoe, this mistletoe variety, which is used in complementary cancer care, is now harvested from cultivated elm trees only.
Climatic fluctuation and imported pests can be a danger to other host trees too. Examples are ash dieback and new leaf diseases such as fungal leaf spot, which is attacking trees in Switzerland and which may, in the medium term, even endanger the harvest of apple mistletoe.
Large colonies of mistletoe in one location are seen as a problem. They are usually found on trees with low resistance to mistletoe, mostly poplars and robinias, but also lime trees and sycamores. Mistletoe also tends to spread rapidly on orchards with standard apple trees that are no longer regularly cared for.
Mistletoe cannot reproduce by itself, but needs the assistance of birds. Mistle thrush, blackcap and waxwing appreciate the slimy sugar of the mistletoe berries as winter food and spread their seeds naturally.
The influence of host trees on mistletoe
Any attempts to grow mistletoe on artificial hosts or even to clone them have failed so far. Mistletoe can only live and grow if it is permanently attached to a living host tree. Just as children, when growing in their mother’s womb, depend on and are influenced by the maternal organism, mistletoe depends on water and nutrients from the host tree, and on the host tree’s life forces. Mistletoe does not extract or choose its nourishment, but absorbs what streams into it from the host tree. The tree’s nurturing juices have such a strong effect on the mistletoe growing on it that the constituents of mistletoe differ fundamentally depending on whether it has grown on an apple tree, oak or pine. Anthroposophic mistletoe therapy makes use of this diversity, providing a wide range of mistletoe preparations for targeting particular aspects of cancer that depend on the constitution of the individual patient.
Dr rer. nat. Hartmut Ramm