Can you eat mistletoe?

In this article, we will answer the question, “can you eat mistletoe?” and also look at the common species of mistletoe. We will also discuss the chemical composition, the medicinal significance, and the cultural implication of mistletoe. Lastly, we will look at how to manage mistletoe poisoning.

Can you eat mistletoe?


Generally, Mistletoe can not be consumed for nutritional purposes, this is because mistletoe contains toxic principles which can cause poisoning if consumed in large quantities by humans. However, mistletoe in minute measurable amounts can be used as medicaments against some human diseased states.

What is responsible for the toxicity of mistletoe?

Mistletoe contains some peptide toxic principles mainly Phoratoxin and viscotoxin which are found in the entire plant (roots, stem, and berries). As a result, when mistletoe is accidentally ingested, toxicity signs such as gastrointestinal upset, diarrhea, irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia),  lethargy, and nausea are manifested.

What are the most known mistletoe varieties?

Two mistletoe variants  are commonly  known which include;

  • American  mistletoe ( Phoradendron serotinum) and
  • European mistletoe (Viscum album)

The American mistletoe

The American mistletoe is an obligate hemiparasitic plant (obligate in the sense that it grows on stems of other plants and hemiparasitic implies; it drives nutrients, water, and minerals from the host plant and as well synthesizes part of its food by itself). American mistletoe grows on plants such as oaks, pine, apples, and elms.

The American mistletoe is commonly used for ornamental reasons during the Christmas season. It is classified in the genus Phoradendron, which implies “thief of the tree” in Greek. 

The American Mistletoe has green leaves meaning it can photosynthesize but also sucks water and other nutrients out of its host plant through its rootlike structures called haustoria which are connected to the vascular tissues (Xylem and Phloem) of the host plant. It is the source of the peptide toxin Phoratoxin as mentioned above.

Phoratoxin

Phoratoxin is a peptide type of toxin which is biosynthesized by the Phoradendron serotinum in the family; Santalaceae (American Mistletoe) when the host plant supplies fixed inorganic nitrogen to the hemiparasite, Phoradendron serotinum. It is concentrated mostly in the leaves and branches and trace amounts in the berries. 

Even though mistletoe contains a couple of potentially toxic constituents, cases of mistletoe poisoning are very rare. Generally, in humans, most mistletoe poisonings are not symptomatic. In severe instances, symptoms relating to stomach upset, decrease in blood pressure, confusion, coma, and even death can happen but are generally rare in occurrence.

This same scenario applies to animals as well. Some birds do eat the berries and go unaffected by the toxin

The European Mistletoe

European mistletoe (of the genus Viscum) is very much like the leafy American mistletoe. The host of the European mistletoe is the oak tree, the mistletoe grows on it and stays green throughout the winter when the trees have lost their leaves. 

Viscotoxin

Viscotoxins are toxic peptides that are predominant in the leaves and stems of the European-type mistletoe (Viscum album, family; Loranthaceae). Viscotoxin has been reported to be physiologically similar to cobra venom, but with few structural variations in the amino acid sequence of the peptide chain.

Physiologically, it also causes severe irritation of the gastrointestinal tract, slow heartbeat rate, and even cardiac arrest in extremity, and confusion. Structurally, viscotoxins are cationic proteins that belong to thionins type III, which implies they are polypeptides with about 45-46 amino acids and 3-4 internal disulfide bonds.

For further information, click here

What purpose does mistletoe serve then if it is not edible?

Cultural and ornamental purposes

Mistletoes are very revered in most European and American cultures as symbols of love and healing. In Germanic mythology, Frigg-the goddess of marriage blessed the mistletoe plant and recommended a kiss to everyone who passed beneath the mistletoe tree. 

During the Christmas season, many  Americans and Europeans got a sprig of mistletoe to their doorways. According to tradition, one may get a kiss if caught under the mistletoe tree.

Medicinal importance

In ancient times, the mistletoe plant was seen to be associated with numerous healing and spiritual effects. Mistletoe in Europe has been used in traditional medicine for centuries for some human diseased states, such as seizures, headaches, and menopausal symptoms.

In Europe, there are standardized formulations of European mistletoe, some are sold as injectables. European mistletoe may also serve as a dietary supplement. Some studies have shown that mistletoes have anticancer activities as well as immune-enhancing activities. For an in-depth discussion, click here.

How can mistletoe poisoning be managed?

Mistletoe poisonings can be managed safely by giving your local poison center a call for emergency assistance. Activated charcoal can be administered as a first-aid solution to absorb the poison so that it does not get into the bloodstream.

Conclusion

In this brief guide, we answered the question, “can you eat mistletoe?” We also give an insight into why you cannot eat mistletoe, and we provided general information on mistletoes and the most known mistletoe varieties. Finally, we also talked about the kind of first aid that might be administered in case of mistletoe poisoning.

Hope you found this blog relevant. Kindly, contact us if you have any questions.

References

https://www.britannica.com/plant/Santalaceae
https://www.dovemed.com/healthy-living/first-aid/first-aid-mistletoe-poisoning/
https://www.apsnet.org/edcenter/apsnetfeatures/Pages/Mistletoe.aspx
https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/biochemistry-genetics-and-molecular-biology/mistletoe

Hi, I am Charlotte, I love cooking and in my previous life, I was a chef. I bring some of my experience to the recipes on this hub and answer your food questions.