Tips from our herbalist

Monday 14 December 2015

Mistletoe, ivy and holly - all plants we associate with decorative festivity around Christmas time, but many also come steeped in magical folklore and claimed health benefits. In-house herbal technician Jane Wallwork-Gush tells us more.

This is a plant steeped in folklore and magical tradition. It was revered by the Druids and features in Norse mythology as a mystical and magical herb. Mistletoe is a symbol of love, luck and fertility and this is borne out by the seasonal practice of kissing under the mistletoe. Apparently a berry should be removed from the plant after each kiss a then kept in a pocket so further kisses could be claimed on demand! As a herbal remedy mistletoe acts as a sedative, it slows down the heart rate and lowers blood pressure. It can relax and tone nerves and muscles and research has indicated anti-tumour activity. It has also been suggested the medicinal properties can differ dependant on the host tree.

Holly is a tree assigned with protective powers against witchcraft and sorcery and was revered prior to Christianity as a plant of lightening and eternal life. When decorating for Christmas, holly should not be brought into the house before Christmas Eve as it was deemed unlucky and there should be an equal amount of smooth holly for the woman and prickly holly for the man! Holly has also had a medicinal role to play and the berries were used in animal medicine as an emetic and a laxative and as a cure for colic.  A bowl made from holly wood was used as a drinking vessel to cure whooping cough and it was also attributed with bone knitting properties. Do not remove your holly until after the Twelfth Night else family quarrels could ensue…

Ivy is a species of plant sacred to Dionysus and Bacchus, the gods of wine, and used to be hung outside inns to show that good wine was available within. It was also used as a cure for drunkenness as the plant could smother a vine! Ivy is a feminine plant and holly masculine, and this polarity was woven in with medieval carols such as “The Holly and the Ivy”. Ivy is often seen in a negative light as being clinging, smothering and detrimental to the tree around which it grows. However, this environment is quite the ecosystem and provides winter supplies for insects of nectar and pollen. Medicinally, Ivy has interesting properties as although charming warts and verrucas away seems rather twee, it is actually an anti-viral herb and both a verruca and a wart are caused by a virus. Animals make use of Ivy to provide an internal cleanse post birth to prevent retention of the afterbirth. They can often been seen seeking out a well leafed plant for this purpose.

Pine and other conifers have become increasingly significant in festivities since the 18th century as the popularity of the decorated fir and spruce increased. Pine has been used in the past to make a natural dye and can produce colours from yellow through to orange and brown, dependant on the mordant used. Pine needles can make an aromatic pillow where the resinous vapours will act as an expectorant to help clear blocked sinuses and snuffy noses. The aromatic water produced during the steam distillation of the essential oil can be used to treat fleas and lice in both people and animals and the essential oil works on the adrenal glands to bring back balance in cases of adrenal exhaustion and anxiety. Pine also can be used externally as an embrocation for pain relief or in a deep tissue salve.

All these plants are strongly featured over the festive season and one can see also how their medicinal properties  can serve a purpose at this time of the year.