Evergreen kisses

This year’s mistletoe crop is abundant in those areas of England where it likes to spread itself quietly among traditional fruit-growing farms. Mistletoe loves apple trees and its heartland is the orchard belt of Worcestershire, Herefordshire, Somerset and Gloucestershire.

The market town of Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire has held an annual Christmas mistletoe market for more than a century. But the wide-scale digging-out of orchards since the 1950s has placed pressure on the plant in these areas where it’s not universally popular because it can reduce the fruit yield from a tree if it grows too vigorously.

A mistletoe expert, Jonathan Briggs, says: “Mistletoe, as a species, is doing just fine. But mistletoe as a crop, taken from old orchards, is certainly threatened as those orchards continue to be neglected or grubbed out. There are lots of berries on the mistletoe this season, so it is a good crop year. Most isn’t actually deliberately grown, of course, so to call it a crop can be misleading – it is a by-product of traditional orchards. It is measured in quality – the amount of berries produced rather than quantity. It’s actually quite a slow-growing shrub, so the size of the whole plant is the product of several years.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

But how has this plant, a partial parasite, embedded itself so thoroughly in our folklore and after centuries still remains as popular as ever today? “Well, it’s a very unusual-looking plant – white-berried, funny shape, etc – and it has that frivolous naughty kissing angle that has its roots right back in pre-history,” says Jonathan Briggs. “Not a lot of plants can claim that.”

It’s at this time of year that mistletoe emerges from anonymity to extend its groping, twiggy embrace around our collective subconscious. For most of us it seems to appear from nowhere in the shops having gone unnoticed for the rest of the year.

Once the trees have finally lost their leaves it remains high up, green and alive against a skeleton of branches. We buy a bunch to take into our homes, or fix sprigs to lapels, without really stopping to wonder why. In pre-industrial times its appearance, bursting with snow-white berries, made it an emphatic symbol of vitality, virility and renewal in an otherwise barren mid-winter landscape.

It’s popularly seen today as a remnant paganism. Churches are said to have avoided including it in their evergreen Christmas decorations. But it seems there is no evidence of mistletoe being banished by law from churches, nor even that it was used in pagan ceremonies in England.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The Roman author and naturalist Pliny does recount how he saw Druids harvesting mistletoe with a golden sickle in the first century AD which suggests it was needed for ritual purposes.

That was not here, however, but in Gaul which today still sends supplies to us. Mistletoe is much more plentiful on mainland Europe and most of what you buy in shops will be from there, especially France.

Romans, Celts and Druids bestowed magical qualities upon the plant, from the power to cure disease, banish witches and ward off evil to bringing good luck for the year to come.

Women wishing to conceive would wear lengths of mistletoe around wrists or waists, hoping to harness the plant’s powers of fertility. It may be from this that the convention of kissing under the mistletoe descends.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

But, far from being harmless, mistletoe can be poisonous. Over-exposure can lead to nausea and hallucinations. In France, it is associated with the Christian cross – the plant’s Gallic name is Herbe de la Croix. The Anglo Saxons chose an earthier name for it – “dung on a twig” – which referred to the way mistletoe spreads and propagates.

Hungry birds, typically thrushes, gobble down the plump berries, wiping the sticky excess from their beaks on to branches. The mistletoe seed sprouts from this goo high in the trees and the seed partly relies on its host for food.

We’ve got strong historical associations then which go way back. For modern traditions, we had Sir Cliff singing Mistletoe and Wine and Justin Bieber belting out Mistletoe in the middle of this summer on X Factor.