By Xanthe Clay
|Photo: CHRISTOPHER JONES|
At last week’s auction – held in a windswept field on the edge of the market town – there were Christmas trees, red-berried holly and locally made wreaths for sale, but it was the mistletoe, tied with twine in suitcase-sized bundles, in which the buyers, mostly garden- centre owners and wholesalers, were most interested.
Unlike American, Asian and Australian species, our mistletoe – the northern European white-berried Viscum album – is the stuff of legend. The ancients were fascinated by it, in particular by the way it seems to grow without roots, appearing as if by magic on trees. We now know that it is a hemiparasitic plant, gathering some of its nutrients from the host tree, but also photosynthesising to produce its own sugars.
For the Romans, mistletoe represented peace, love and understanding. The dark green leaves and white berries were also a Celtic fertility symbol.
In Britain’s mistletoe-growing regions, a branch would be brought inside at Christmas to protect the house. Any woman walking underneath could not refuse to be kissed, or she would remain an old maid. After a kiss, she would pick a berry from the branch. But kissing only became a national Christmas tradition in the 18th century, thanks to the Victorians’ obsession with Druids, driven by William Stukeley, the first archaeologist to complete a serious study of Stonehenge. And with the advent of Britain’s railways, it became possible to transport the fresh mistletoe efficiently around the country for the first time.
Looking around the crowd at the auction, my companion, mistletoe expert Jonathan Briggs, noted the number of flat caps and green wax jackets jostling with hoodies, and remarked: “There are several Druids here. I can see three now.” I looked around for flowing white robes or golden sickles. “They prefer not to be recognised,” Briggs whispered.
Suzanne and Jake Thomas, a cheerful, long-haired young couple dressed in mufti, assured me they were real Druids, part of The Druid Network, which rejoices in the natural world in general, and mistletoe in particular.
According to the Roman philosopher, Pliny the elder, writing in the first century AD, the ancient Druids of England worshipped mistletoe that grew on sacred oaks. They gathered it in white cloaks without letting it touch the ground, in a ceremony that included sacrificing two white bulls. These days, the ritual that Suzanne and Jake take part in is multifaith and less gory, but still maintains the no-touching-the-ground tradition. “If you drop mistletoe, its magic is lost into the ground,” Suzanne explains. “We drop it in the River Teme, where the magic is absorbed into the water, which takes it all around the world.”
As we walked the lines of mistletoe, I was struck by the sheer quantity for sale – 600 or so bundles, some weighing more than 40lbs. Mistletoe isn’t cultivated as a crop, but is harvested from apple trees, a favourite host and one with branches low enough to make gathering possible. But is it a sustainable operation?
“As a species in northern Europe,” says Briggs, “mistletoe is doing just fine. The problem is that the Christmas crop comes from orchards, and 75 per cent of traditional apple orchards in Britain have been lost in the past 50 years.” Mistletoe also favours older trees, rather than the newly planted ones whose bark is less easily penetrated by the roots.
In fact, a careful mistletoe cull helps protect the tree. “Mistletoe will grow really well in a neglected orchard, spreading to cover the tree and accelerating its decline. It needs to be pruned.” However, casual gatherers tend to take only the female plant, which has the berries, leaving the equally damaging male plants to wreak havoc.
Should you fancy growing your own, Briggs says it is surprisingly easy to cultivate. “Ideally, pick the berries in February, or keep a branch from Christmas in a cool shed or garage – not the fridge, as it needs light – so the berries shrivel a little, but stay soft. Soak them in water overnight, then squeeze out the seed and its sticky juice. Then just stick it on the bark. The usual gardening advice on mistletoe, cutting a nick in the bark and tucking the seed in, is nonsense.”
To begin the auction, auctioneer Nick Champion strode along the row, followed by a crowd sipping on polystyrene cups of tea from the nearby burger van. The first lot was a magnificent bushy cloud of mistletoe, still attached to its apple branch. “£32, £34, £36, £38… Any more? Any more? Sold to the lady!”
Our buyer was Sally Moore, who had brought a horsebox from Somerset to fill with mistletoe. It was not for any old festive decorations, either, but for her daughter Pollyanna’s wedding, to Captain David Kane, an Apache pilot just back from Afghanistan. “We always have mistletoe at Christmas,” Mrs Moore explained, “and she wants the whole ceiling hung with it.” What better place for a bride’s first kiss than under the mistletoe?
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