Mistletoe….that little bunch of greenery with its white waxy berries….that you may have suspended over your door during this festive season – in anticipation of a quick peck or perhaps a full-blown ‘snog’ – with whoever happens to cross the threshold…. One of our more fun traditions over the Christmas and New Year period….
As much as we love it, as a plant it could be argued that mistletoe is a bit of a rogue – being a parasite it steals the nutrients it needs from its host – (it has leaves purely to photosynthesize)…. In small amounts it causes no real harm but a large infestation can kill the tree or shrub supporting it – and so ultimately it could also kill itself….
European mistletoe, ‘Viscum album’, is the only type to be found growing naturally in the UK. It can be recognised by its smooth-edged, oval-shaped, evergreen leaves, which grow in pairs on a woody stem with a cluster of 2-6 berries.
Whereas, its cousin, ‘Viscum cruciatum’, found in South-West Spain, Southern Portugal, North Africa, Asia and Australia, has broader, shorter leaves and larger clusters of 10 or more berries….
European mistletoe utilises a wide variety of host plants; it can often be spotted growing in the upper boughs of, for example, our willow, apple and oak trees….
To begin with a seed germinates upon the branch of a tree, at first it is completely independent…. Usually 2-4 embryos are present, each producing its own Hypocotyledonous, (the lead stem of a germinating seedling); this will then begin to penetrate the bark of the branch and will start to root. Eventually it will tap into the host’s conductive tissue and the young mistletoe plant will form its Haustorium, (the name given to the part of a parasitic plant that enables it to attach itself and draw nutrients from its host). This whole process can take up to a year….
Come across a clump of mistletoe and you might be lucky enough to spy a Mistle Thrush, ‘Tardus viscivorus’, or ‘devourer of mistletoe’…. With its pale grey-brown, black-spotted underparts, this large (slightly bigger than a blackbird) thrush adores the berries produced by mistletoe and will guard a horde ferociously….(it also loves holly and yew berries and will defend these too). It returns the favour of a free feast by spreading the plant’s seeds (through its poo) as it travels from tree to tree – hence earning its given name ‘Mistle Thrush’….
Another name it (or at least the male) is sometimes known by is the ‘Storm cock’. Even in bad weather he sings his loud flutey song from the tree tops from late January onwards; to hear him is a sign that Spring is approaching. One of the earliest breeders of the year, the Mistle Thrush may lay eggs as early as the end of February and before the end of June could raise up to three broods….
As well as the previously mentioned berries the Mistle Thrush will eat blackberries, elderberries, cherries, hawthorn and rosehips. It is known to take fallen fruit, such as apples and plums and will eat worms, slugs, snails and insects….
Although once commonly widespread across the UK – being found in woodland, parks and gardens – since the 1970s this bird has been declining in numbers and is now on the official ‘red list’. Between 1995 and 2010 one third of the population was lost; it is thought due to its young not surviving through to adulthood. Although we still have a lot to learn as to why the exact reasons for its decline, removal of hedgerows and the use of pesticides will not have helped. One thing we do know for sure is that we must be extremely concerned for its future….
Myths surrounding mistletoe, along with the customs and traditions involving it, far pre-date the advent of Christianity. The tradition of hanging it indoors and the belief that it brings good luck, whilst warding off evil spirits, stems from Pagan origins; in Norse mythology it is a sign of love and friendship….
Baldur the Beautiful was the son of Frigg (the goddess Friday is named after) and Odin. Baldur had reoccurring dreams of his own death; to pacify him his mother made every living thing on Earth – each animal and every plant growing in the soil – promise never to cause him any harm. Baldur became invincible – nothing could hurt him – but he remained very good-natured with it…. So much so, the other gods began to good-naturedly take advantage – and used him as ‘target practice’. However, there was one god – ‘Loki’ – who was not a particularly pleasant character….he was jealous and vindictive…. Loki discovered that mistletoe had been over-looked when it came to promising not to harm Baldur, as its roots were not placed in the soil…. He persuaded Baldur’s blind brother, ‘Hod’, to fire an arrow made from mistletoe at the young god. Baldur died instantly from the single shot; Hod was blamed and all of the gods mourned. Such was her grief, that Frigg’s tears formed the berries bourne by mistletoe – but rather than punish the plant she declared it to become the symbol of peace and friendship for evermore….
In days long gone by, if enemies met beneath it, a truce would be declared and arms laid down until the following sunrise…. In France, mistletoe is given at New Year as a gift to bring good luck – a tradition coming from the ‘Peace of Baldur’….
During the Roman occupation, Britons worshipped ‘Daron’ – a goddess of the oak tree. In Britain’s folklore there are 3 magical trees: ash, thorn and oak…. Oak is the king of trees; to cut down a sacred oak would be sacrament…. In the Celtic language ‘mistletoe’ means ‘all heal’; to the Druids it is one of the most sacred plants – healing diseases, rendering poisons as harmless, giving fertility (to both humans and animals), protecting against witchcraft, banishing evil spirits and bringing good luck….
Five days after the new moon following the Winter Solstice, mistletoe would be cut from the boughs of the sacred oak, using a golden sickle. Although it was allowed to naturally fall, it had to be caught in a cloak or out-stretched hide before it hit the ground – for if it did so, its magical powers would be lost. The ancient Druid priests would then separate the mistletoe into sprigs and divide them among the people, to protect them from evil…. In order for the magic to work, the bunch of mistletoe hung inside the house had to remain for the whole 12 months until a replacement was brought in – the old bunch would then have been burned with much ceremony….
Sometimes it would have been used as a medicine to aid fertility. Being evergreen and whilst its deciduous host appeared to be dead during the sleeping months of Winter, mistletoe gave the impression of the life cycle continuing – especially important in regards to the sacred oak…. The paired leaves of mistletoe, along with its succulent berries full of sticky juice made it a symbol of the sexual organs…. Young women were given sprigs as a charm to help them find a husband.
From the remains of this fertility ritual comes the custom of kissing beneath it – a custom that originates in England and dates back to the Middle Ages. A ‘kissing bough’ would be brought into the house; five wooden hoops formed into a ball shape and placed inside it a red apple suspended on a (usually red) ribbon. A candle would also be either placed inside or attached to the exterior; the whole of the outside would then be decorated with evergreen, such as holly, ivy, fir, rosemary, bay….and finally a large bunch of mistletoe hung from underneath….
As mistletoe was closely associated with Pagan rituals it was frowned upon by the Church and banned from the decorations used at Christmas time to decorate churches. This is still often the case today….
During Victorian times there became a renewed interest in certain Pagan customs – particularly those involving fun and frivolity….like kissing; the hope being things would lead to romance and marriage among the young folk…. Originally a berry would be picked from the sprig before the kiss – when all the berries had gone there would be no more kissing! Although originating in England, these ‘games’ soon became popular in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand….in fact just about in any English-speaking nation….
“Young men have the privilege of kissing girls under (mistletoe), plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases….” – Washington Irving – early 19th Century writer – regarded as ‘The Father of American literature’….
Such became the demand for mistletoe during the mid 19th Century, that an organised harvest and the trading of it began. The key areas being Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Wales and lowland Gwent. (Herefordshire still boasts the best mistletoe in the UK and has the plant as its County flower)…. Being known as a fruit-growing region, the area’s orchards provided a perfect habitat and mistletoe was abundant; it would be cut and sent all around the Country….
Soon the focus became centred on the ancient market town of Tenbury Wells, in the extreme northwest of the Malvern Hills district of Worcestershire. Tenbury was to become the English capital of mistletoe and for over 100 years its cattle market would be totally given over to an annual auction of mistletoe, holly and later, Christmas trees. Auctions, being held the last Tuesday in November and the first two in December, were open to retailers, florists, market stall holders and the public, from all over the UK. These auctions were held at Tenbury until 2006, ceasing after the cattle market was sold in 2005 for redevelopment; it was then that the Tenbury Wells Mistletoe Festival was formed to keep the tradition alive. This year the auctions were held at Burford House Garden Store, in Worcestershire; it was a bumper crop and depending on quality fetched a price of between £1 – £2 per kg….
During Victorian times England’s growers found it too hard to keep up with the demand for mistletoe and so imports began to arrive from Europe – particularly France; where it would be harvested from the orchards of Normandy and Breton. It would be imported into the docks at Southampton and then taken to be sold at Nine Elms Market in London….
Nowadays, with farming methods changing, many of our traditional orchards have disappeared – not just here in the UK but in Northern France too…. Perhaps this should emphasise even more just how important it is that we look after our little friend the Mistle Thrush – especially if we want to carry on the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe….
Remember to save that last berry for the one you love….
….Happy New Year X