Tough work to pick a wild sprig of mistletoe

Mistletoe
Mistletoe
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The great mistletoe hunt is in its final hours. If you haven’t managed to track down a sprig of that most potent of Christmas foliage the chances are, according to folk tradition, you will be denied the chance of a festive squeeze.

The problem for Yorkshire romantics is that wild mistletoe is pretty hard to source in the Broad Acres, although plenty of mistletoe - usually imported from Normandy - may be found at shops and garden centres, perhaps giving new meaning to words “French kiss”.

Even in mistletoe’s traditional English stronghold of cider-making counties like Somerset, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire the plant is less widespread than it was a few decades ago. This is because the marketing of cider as a chic drink means orchards are now intensively managed to increase production, and mistletoe - a semi-parasite which can kill a tree - is strictly controlled.

Consequently, the National Trust is campaigning to restore traditional orchards and bring about a revival of this most curious of plants.

I know of just two places mistletoe grows in Yorkshire. One is on a lime tree in the grounds of Lotherton Hall, to the east of Leeds. The other is a particularly large clump wrapping itself around a bough of a lime in one of the city’s parks.

There are undoubtedly other isolated growths, but botanists say it has all but disappeared in the north of England.

Mistletoe lives off the nutrients and water from a host tree. Although it is parasitic, it will not kill the host tree but can weaken it. The berries are often spread by birds from tree to tree, and this is how the large rounded clumps of mistletoe form in tree branches.

The most common host tree in the UK is apple, but poplar and lime are also frequent hosts.

No plant has more symbolism attached to it than mistletoe because of its ancient connection with the supernatural, resulting from it being an evergreen that produces berries in the depths of winter and thus displays vitality in the face of death.

Druids, the pagan people of pre-Roman Britain, used it in a ceremony in which two white bulls were sacrificed. Wearing white vestments, the Druid priest climbed the host tree and cut mistletoe with a gold sickle. When the plant was caught in a white cloak below, the priest would descend from the tree and kill the bulls.

The plant is credited with curing epileptics, eliminating tumours and guarding against witches’ spells, while a sprig tied to the wrist or waist of a woman who had difficulty conceiving was said to increase her chances of pregnancy.

The darker side of mistletoe’s heritage has meant that churches will not permit the plant to be brought inside, but York Minister is a famous exception to the rule.

During the Christmas Eve carol service, the Dean pulls on a pair of ceremonial gloves and ties a ball of mistletoe to one of the ridder posts on the high altar of the Minster choir.

His intention is not to lure a lady to within kissing distance of its wishbone-shaped twigs of slender leaves and waxy white berries, but to continue a ritual which dates back to the Middle Ages. Back then, an archbishop declared that mistletoe growing on a tree symbolised living in harmony. The tradition is not written down but has been passed on orally for centuries by York Minister’s head vergers.