“As Obsolete as some Better Things”: Mistletoe in our Collections

Published on 19th December 2018

Type Specimen
Type Specimen of Viscum album

Mistletoe has held symbolic significance since ancient times, and has come to be synonymous with Christmas. Thus this time of year provides the perfect excuse to nose through our library, archive and specimens, and use this Christmassy species to illuminate our collections and some of the people connected with them.

Although the name now applies to hundreds of species with similar features, ‘mistletoe’ originally referred to Viscum album, the only mistletoe native to Britain and much of Europe. It is one of the many species named by Linnaeus, and our collections hold the type for it – the physical specimen to which a scientific name is formally attached. Its older, Latin name, viscus, is where the modern word ‘viscous’ is derived from, as the plant’s sticky berries were used to make birdlime, to trap small birds.

Ortus Sanitatis
A page from the oldest book in our collections 'Ortus Sanitatis'

The oldest book in our collections, Ortus Sanitatis (‘Garden of Health’, 1491), was owned by Linnaeus, and features an entry on mistletoe. This work was the first printed encyclopedia of natural history, and describes hundreds of species of plants and animals, along with their medicinal usage. It compares mistletoe to Thapsia, or the deadly carrot, found in southwestern Europe. Uses it gives for mistletoe include heating the body, softening boils, and, when combined with pine resin, treating abscesses. Ortus Sanitatis has many fantastic woodcut illustrations, although there is some ‘botanical retrogression’, evident too in the image of mistletoe. This indicates that the engraver wasn’t familiar with some of the plants he was copying from previous cuts.

Griffith 2
One of William Griffith's papers on mistletoe

Mistletoe is a hemiparasitic plant, and cannot complete its lifecycle without a host species. Its roots penetrate the bark of its host tree to draw out water and nutrients, whilst its leaves continue to photosynthesise. This type of parasitism has evolved separately at least 12 times in flowering plants. William Griffith, a doctor, botanist and Fellow of the Society, wrote papers on the development of the ova of mistletoe and Loranthus (another plant in the mistletoe family), and their parasitism. We still hold his original drawings illustrating the papers, which were published in 1838. Griffith travelled widely through India, and died there aged only 35.

Griffith 1
One of William Griffith's papers on mistletoe

There are many more depictions of mistletoe throughout our collections. Hermann Adolph Köhler’s crisp, colour-printed plate shows the plant’s parts, and he remarks that by then, in 1887, it was rarely used medicinally any more (Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen). The final image here is from James Sowerby’s major work English Botany, which was published in 267 monthly parts between 1791 and 1814. The founder of the Linnean Society, Sir James Edward Smith, wrote the commentary to Sowerby’s beautiful hand-coloured plates. He references the use of mistletoe in Christmas decorations, and says, rather cryptically, “In polite life it is as obsolete as some better things, and left to the kitchen”.

By Dorothy Fouracre, Librarian

Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen
Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen
James Sowerby English Botany
James Sowerby’s English Botany