No matter what holiday tradition you celebrate this winter, chances are you'll incorporate a fir tree, a potted poinsettia, or other significant plants in the festivities. Aside from lending visual and symbolic appeal, many of the holiday herbs historically used to ring in the season have medicinal benefits as well.
Take pine (Pinus species), for instance, which appears in cough syrups. This expectorant and antioxidant helps lung-related complaints such as asthma and respiratory infections. For this reason, Dr. Alfred Vogel, the late Swiss herbalist, used pine syrup in his popular cough formulas. Pine tea added to a bath relieves sore muscles, while pine sap in a salve benefits eczema and psoriasis and draws out splinters.
We can clearly see why gold figured as a valuable gift in the age of the three wise men. But what about frankincense and myrrh? In the Middle East, people burned these resins to help purify the air, especially in public places of worship, where airborne disease presented a particular health threat. Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha), a plant native to the Red Sea region, served as a disinfectant, destroying bacteria and stimulating white blood cell production. Small amounts of the resin, usually used in tincture form, also treat gum infections, candida, impetigo, lung infections, and arthritis. (Use only small amounts of myrrh for brief periods of time, as excessive use may be toxic.) In traditional European and Ayurvedic medicine, the pale-colored resin of frankincense (Boswellia carteri) taken internally helped treat dysentery, fevers, vomiting, and menstrual cramps. Topical applications improve arthritis, athletic injuries, bruises, acne, and tumors.
Mistletoe (Viscum album in Europe and Phoradendron serotinum in America) appeared as far back as 200 B.C. in the winter celebrations of the Druids, who gathered sprigs of the plant and hung them in their homes for good fortune. Herbalists today use small amounts of the herb to lower blood pressure, promote menstrual flow, and as a diuretic. (Mistletoe, especially the American variety, can be toxic, so use only under an herbalist's supervision, and always keep the plant away from children.) In the anthroposophical medicine of the Austrian philosopher and educator Rudolph Steiner (1861-1925), mistletoe even factors as a cancer treatment in a formula called Iscar that works as an immuno-modulator. Like many holiday herbs, its cultural significance as a winter-celebration plant endures in tandem with its healing benefits.