We were surprised to learn recently that, despite its status as a festive smooch-inducer, mistletoe is actually a highly poisonous parasite. Sexy! It also, however, has some medicinal benefits, which got us wondering about other holiday spices and trimmings. Turns out, there’s a lot more to this stuff than just looking or tasting good.
Despite its toxic nature (if eaten, the plant can cause blurred vision, vomiting and seizures) preliminary trials suggest that when prepared correctly, mistletoe extract injections can soothe the side effects of cancer treatments like chemotherapy. It does this by boosting the patient’s immune systems and helping them deal with nausea and loss of appetite. The Nation’al Cancer Institute also says that mistletoe extract has been shown to kill cancer cells under laboratory conditions.
Like Mistletoe, Holly can be extremely dangerous, as its berries are poisonous to humans. But in certain species, the plant’s leaves have some interesting effects—in South America, for example, the leaves of the Ilex paraguayensis variety would be dried, ground and turned into a form of tea containing caffeine. Ilex aquifolium leaves have been found to be beneficial for treating fevers and rheumatism, and Ilex opaca leaves have been used as an emetic— that is, their purpose is to make you throw up everything in your stomach and void your bowels. Unless you’re a Holly expert, this is probably not a plant you want to take a gamble on.
The classic Christmas tree has more to offer than mere decoration. Its sap has multiple uses in wilderness survival, from starting fires to waterproofing your boots, but it’s first aid where the sticky stuff really shines. It can be used for preventing bleeding by sticking the skin of a wound back together or even treating rashes (when mixed with 190 proof Everclear). It can also be used for treating sore throats by chewing the softer, less solidified sap—just don’t expect to be minty fresh afterwards.
Second only to cinnamon as a Christmas-y spice, nutmeg is actually the seed of an evergreen tree called Myristica fragrans. There are several claimed benefits of nutmeg, including its use as a treatment for stomach pain and diarrhea, and its use as a topical analgesic for mouth sores and toothache. That said, as with so many items on this list, it can be extremely dangerous when taken in larger quantities, with side effects including nausea, convulsions and even hallucinations, so it’s best not to self-medicate with this unless you want a psychoactive Christmas.
Made from the inner bark of various trees belonging to the genus Cinnamomum (a part of the laurel family), cinnamon is best known as the brownish powder that makes everything taste like Christmas, but it has also been found to be effective in the treatment of muscle soreness, as well as being an antioxidant and an anti-inflammatory. Most importantly, cinnamon has been found useful as a tool for singling out people with a high propensity for doing something really, really stupid on camera, as can be seen, well, everywhere.