Mistletoe: Not just for kissing?

By Jennifer Munroe

As the holiday season draws near, mistletoe might come to mind, since the tradition of kissing under this otherwise culturally-absent plant prevails today. Native to North America, mistletoe grows in the west as well as in areas of the east. The first time I saw mistletoe growing high in the tree canopy as I was driving down the highway here in North Carolina, it seemed somehow out of place, with its wispy tendrils, quite unlike the version I’d seen in stores over the years. In England, mistletoe, or viscum album, grows as a shrub, with its small, yellow flowers and white, sticky berries. It seems that today, the extracts of European mistletoe has been used for seizures, headaches, and even to treat cancer. And to think: I thought it was just for kissing.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across the following references to mistletoe from correspondence between Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh, and her brother, Robert Boyle. Both letters express Jones’s concern for her sister-in-law, Margaret Boyle, as she suffers from frequent bouts of “scurbitical humour,” or fits related to scurvy.

In the first letter, Jones refers to a quantity of mistletoe that she has found in the recently-deceased Lady Clarendon’s “case”:

“Nature being soe farr weakened as to be unable to worke together wth ye remedys ye Dr had upon consulte agreed to give her. None of all which had so visible an operation as to wakening and rousing her as a large bottle of very quick spirit of Hartshorne that I procured for he held under her nose which ye Dr confesed was as proper as any thing that could be use to her (& which I give you notice of to invite you to put yourselfe into a good stock of it for my Dearest Sisters use which how you may doe, one that I know having lately stilled it in good quantity & selling it for 5s an ounce. Halfe a pinte would be enough for you at once which was about what we now had for this poore Lady … I intend this night if I can get Dr Cox to discourse with him about her, & then send you wt he directs his power he thinks rather better than ye Misselto I found in my Lady Claringdons case that ye Dr [saw her] foaming & puking at ye mouth differing things in these fits he she did ye later at least…” (BL Add 75354, ff. 101-104: Letter from Katherine to Robert 10 Aug, 1667?).

In the second letter, dated a week later, mistletoe is prescribed as a possible remedy for Margaret Boyle’s fits, but an alternative remedy, a “hartshorn spirit” of Jones’s making, figures as again as an arguably superior treatment:

“The misselto may be given about ye changes of ye moone if it could be got in quantities enough to be so employed but because its so great a raretie its seldome given but in a fit or upon discovery of ye approach of one. My Lady Warwicke is not yet come home when she does I shall god wiling make her send you some but my Lord Dretzwel can furnish you for he has one growing. Ye Hartshorne spirit I have spoken for as you [requested] but know not how to send a halfe pint bottle by ye post & therefore shal desire Mr Graham to send it as fast as he can” (BL Add 75354, ff. 107r-110v, dated  17 Aug 1667?).

While there is much that could be said about these letters, what’s curious to me is the way that mistletoe and hartshorn spirits function as competing treatments for scorbitical fits [related to scurvy] (and earlier in the first letter, ironically, the doctor insisted that Margaret Boyle not eat raw fruit when she began to feel unwell). Jones seems not quite to want to contradict the doctor’s prescription of mistletoe, but she certainly suggests her hartshorn might be more effective. In the first letter, that is, she makes it clear that even the doctor “confesed” that her hartshorn spirits, waved under the nose (which she can sell to interested parties for 5s an ounce, by the way…) vivified the ailing Lady Clarendon more effectively than other applications; and it seems the “foaming & puking at ye mouth” that Lady Clarendon experienced may well have stemmed from her use of the mistletoe in her case, as mistletoe ingestion induces vomiting. In both recipes, the references to mistletoe as a treatment are followed almost immediately by those for Jones’s own (and obviously preferred) hartshorn spirits, made from the shavings from a hart’s antlers, which produces ammonium carbonate. And while it seems that such a remedy would likely be an irritant to its user, Jones swears by it. Or at least she swears by her spirit of hartshorn. Maybe it is better, though, to leave the hartshorn on the hart and the mistletoe for kissing and just eat some fruit—or some fruitcake.