Jonathan's Mistletoe Diary

December 10, 2004

Mistletoe, toxicity, and Office Parties….

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jonathan Briggs @ 8:39 pm

Mistletoe is in all the headlines! But for all the wrong reasons. RoSPA and the TUC have issued killjoy guidance for employers on office parties, and inter alia have suggested mistletoe should be banned in case it leads to sexual harassment charges! I think this is little OTT – and so do the nation’s media. The guidance certainly gets coverage, but it’s mostly poking fun at RoSPA and the TUC rather than suggesting following their guidance.

Am not sure whether this is deliberate or a cock-up on RoSPA/TUC’s part. I suspect the latter. For my part I’m interviewed briefly for Independent Radio News and point out that ‘sensible’ guidance would surely be along the following lines: Insist on following the tradition of a berry being removed for each kiss – this would ensure a more strategic approach to kisses – as these would be rationed and not the free-for-all RoSPA/TUC seem to envisage. It would also ensure all kissing would be long over before people got drunk – as there would be no berries left. Easy! And could please everyone!

Am slightly annoyed that RoSPA/TUC also include a line in their guide about mistletoe berries being poisonous – a common perception, but actually this unpleasant property belongs to the American mistletoe – not the species we use. Ours is slightly poisonous – but effects are mild, and our plant is widely used to make tea, especially in Germany.

I decide to investigate a little further, just to check my facts, and confirm that yes, Viscum album is not considered poisonous, (though it can produce nausea, so don’t try it!) by those in the know (which don’t include RoSPA and the TUC), and yes there is a lot of confusion out there! A lot of sources over here think that mistletoe, or its berries are poisonous, but on checking their information usually seems to lead back to the American not the European species. There is no perception that there is more than one species…

In the States the toxicity of their native mistletoe (Phoradendron species) is well-known, and berries (not leaves) on their decorations are often replaced by plastic. The berries are considered more toxic – but in reality it may be simply that it is only the berries that are likely to be ingested by children and pets – not the leaves.

Internet searches show that the Americans are, and always have been, also confused by the 2 Christmas mistletoe species. The current, and ‘expert’ US cancer.gov website has a summary of mistletoe extract information – but fails to differentiate between the differing species’ properties, giving the reader the impression that whilst mistletoe is deadly toxic it is also used in medicine. Not so – the toxic species isn’t the one used in medicine. This seems dangerous to me, as readers might get the impression that an extract of the American mistletoe could be used in medicine… Not a good idea (and a ‘could do better’ for the cancer.gov site compilers)

Further back in time I find that the US Agricuture Department was actually advocating use of mistletoe tea back in 1977 (AP 22nd Jan 1977). It’s not clear whether they meant native or European mistletoe, or whther they knew the difference, but it led to a lot of debate… Within 24 hours (AP 23rd Jan) the Poison Control Centre in New York was contradicting them and advising people NOT to drink mistletoe tea as American mistletoe is toxic. But still no mention of what species the Agriculture guys were talking about – only that they were talking about ‘commercial’ mistletoe tea. By the 24th the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had also weighed in against drinking the tea. But which species…???

There is no answer from the AP archive, but perhaps a key clue from the Wall Street Journal 2 years later. This reported (Dec 13th 1979) that the FDA had seized 168 boxes of imported mistletoe tea as it ‘could be poisonous’. No details are given, but I think the keyword there is ‘imported’. It was probably harmless European mistletoe tea…, and perhaps that what was being promoted all along…

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