The Mistletoe Rite – Day 1

I feel humbled. The weirdometer went off the scale today, and when I mentioned this later to one of those involved they replied that this was ‘merely’ a community exercise (so perhaps I should recalibrate the weirdometer). ‘This’ was the druid mistletoe rite, which I was privileged (and I mean that very sincerely indeed) to attend this evening.

I don’t know where to start really, and I don’t even have any photos to show you (it would have been very disrespectful to take them). The meeting was an inaugral meeting of the Mistletoe Foundation, a druid initiative seeking to rediscover the mistletoe rite and new approaches, not least propagating as well as harvesting the plant. A new sustainable approach. (for more info go to http://www.druidnetwork.org/mistletoe/index.html)

The location, at a bunk barn on a farm co-operative (http://www.ragmans.co.uk) in the Forest of Dean was masterful – lots of mistletoe about, and the right facilities. The event, attended by druids from all over the country, and from varying sects, was momentous. I attended as an outsider and, as far as I could tell, I was the only non-initiate present.

The programme included preparation for the rite, the rite itself (scheduled for 6pm) and tomorrow, discussion of how to take the initiative forward (more on that tomorrow). Today’s event started at midday, with preparation of ivy head-dresses etc, but the real action began at 1.30, when we gathered to discuss how to approach the rite. I won’t go into detail – it would take too long, and is druid, not public, business. But this involved lengthy discussion of how the rite should be approached, what form it should take, how it should relate to Pliny the Elder’s account of the rite (which included the sacrifice of 2 white bulls – not an option to the neo-druid) and who should do what and when. There was debate, and difference of opinion – not surprising when you realise that the day was attended by druids from varying groups and beliefs. But a programme was agreed, reviewed, and agreed again.

We started at 5.30. I say we, but I inevitably felt myself to be an outsider, unfamiliar with accepted otherwise accepted process such as calling the ancestors, calling the quarters (spirits of the N, S, E and W) etc. But everyone was so friendly, and personal beliefs seemed (and are) secondary to the spirit of the whole, of the ‘tribe’. A mistletoe-bearing tree (an ancient pollarded lime) had already been selected, just a few minutes walk away, a sickle had been forged especially, with the smith present, and a cloth to catch the mistletoe (it must not touch the ground) had been especially woven.

The weather was not good. Tonight was the 6th of the new moon, the night Pliny suggested the Druids enacted this rite. But unlike yesterday the moon was shrouded, and we began under drizzle and ended in light rain. But the determination to succeed was strong – beginning with the ritual burning of dry mistletoe from last year in an open-air fire – to rid each of their banes – and we all took turns. This burning of last year’s mistletoe, kept indoors since last winter, is a strong local custom, and not confined to the druids.

From here we processed, in twos, to the pond, with a ritual gift thrown into the waters. And finally, in the dark and wet, over the slippery ground, which most traversed in their robes, to the mistletoe tree. Again I won’t go into detail, as this is not my business to recount. The sickle was produced, in ceremony, and the appointed tree-climber was approached and climbed the tree – in the dark, in the rain, and dressed in robes (he did have a head torch). It was an awe-inspiring sequence – would he make it up the tree, would he reach the mistletoe, would he cut enough, and, critically, would it fall into the outstretched cloth below. Lastly, would he make it down again safely? The answer, to all the above, is Yes. The communal sense of relief was almost physical, and the procession back to the fire was jubilant. We had closure, and relaxation until tomorrow… I had to go, but agreed to return in the morning for the next session – on what to do with the harvested material, and how to progress the Mistletoe Foundation.

More tomorrow… In the meantime take inspiration from this picture of the druidic mistletoe rite, a reproduction of Henri Paul Motte’s famous (c 1890) painting (click to enlarge)

Druids cutting the Mistletoe. Henri Paul Motte, 1890. Posted by Hello

more markets, less toxicity

Well, the BBC Gardener’s World with the Tenbury Mistletoe Auction was just on the telly, and I missed most of it. But saw enough to see Monty Don discussing the wholesaler’s prefernces for English mistletoe – rather than the travel-weary French stuff. And to confirm that as I feared the already-dated footage (filmed last year) meant that the threatened closure of the Auction site wasn’t mentioned – indeed MD stood there and exclaimed about what a wonderful ongoing tradition it was. But perhaps it isn’t Monty… see blogs passim.

Talking of mistletoe sales I had a quick look at the Gloucester Farmers Market today where many stalls were decorated with mistletoe and at least 2 were actively selling large quantities – at £1 a bunch – a substantial mark-up on the Tenbury wholesale price – but that’s fair enough, this was retail. Actually I was more interested in the Gooseberry Wine and the organic beef – one can sometimes have a bit too much mistletoe…

A colleague remarked today on my letter in the Guardian, and I had to admit I wasn’t aware it was in. It was in yesterday, apparently, which was nice. I’d forgotten about it (it’s been a long week) as I’d written it in a rush (never a good plan for a newspaper letter – unless it’s for the Trumpton Gazette or similar local rag) and assumed it had gone to the bin. It was, of course, on mistletoe, and was a resposne to that TUC/RoSPA mistletoe advice from last week (see previous blogs). Only two points; one advocating sensible kissing by removing a berry each time, and the other covering the toxicity thing (see previous etc). Reproduced in full below.

But I have to report yet more (yawn) on the toxicity front. I’ve had an email from anonymous “NCI Cancer.gov Staff” in the States responding to one from me that (constructively) criticised their failure to differentiate mistletoe species in their review of mistletoe extracts in cancer therapy. They point out that, actually, in fact, and undoubtedly, American mistletoe MAY NOT BE TOXIC. Now, regular readers will know that I have been suggesting that rumours of European mistletoe (Viscum) being toxic are false, and based on the fact that American mistletoe (Phoradendron) is toxic. But it seems this may not be the case either. They support their case with some references to papers that describe actual experience – I give you just one for info – click on this http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=8699554.

So, perhaps it’s not just cancer.gov staff that ‘could do better’ (my line from a previous blog) but me as well. I was so pre-occupied proving a lack of toxicity in European mistletoe I failed to properly check on the American mistletoe studies. It all makes those stories (see previous blogs) about scares in the US in the 1970s even more mysterious… And might mean my Grauniad letter is misleading? Anyway I reckon the jury’s still out on the American species – you’ll note that link above does refer to one fatality… And cancer.gov could still do better – they quote one of the Phoradendron toxicity reviews in their review of possible adverse effects of Viscum – without apparently noticing…

But enough toxic (or non-toxic, whatever) ranting. Now is the time to go and study the moon – for tonight we have a clear sky, with the crescent moon shining. Will it be this good tomorrow night – when the druids have their mistletoe ceremony? Wait and see…

Guardian letter 16th Dec Posted by Hello

Riverside mistletoe is more natural

A morning spent on the floodplain of the River Salwarpe, just upstream of its confluence with the Severn. Not to look at mistletoe, but to discuss reedbed creation. The areas we were looking at are between the Salwarpe and the Droitwich Canal, and as part of the canal restoration project we are planning to create new reedbeds on land next to the canal to compensate for those currently in the old canal channel.

We started off just upstream of Hawford Mill, a site familiar to me since my late teens, when I helped research the history of the Salwarpe mills. I say ‘familiar’ but in truth, other than the name, the actual site doesn’t ring any bells at all. But that was about 20 (ok 25) years ago – am I getting old?

Anyway, the first site, just below some fishing lakes is rather wonderful old pastureland, full of teasels and thistles. Whilst these are a little past their best at this time of year (except to goldfinches) the accompanying riverside scrub is more seasonally interesting, as it supports lots of Mistletoe! The scrub here, and on the ramp up to the old canal bridge, is predominantly hawthorn, and there are numerous small mistletoe growths. These are typical of hawthorn, where it seldom grows large. But each growth is a magnet to a mistletoe enthusiast and I insist on visiting each one, just to look at it, much to the amusement of my companions – Trevor the Fishing Lakes proprietor, James the Canals Restoration Project Manager, and Tim the Property man from the District Council. They’re even more amused when I take a call on the mobile from BBC Radio Guernsey about an interview on the morning programme for tomorrow. About mistletoe of course. Does it pay, asks Trevor? Er, no, I reply. Don’t give up the day job is his advice…

Later on James and I visit more fields downstream of the mill, and the roar of the A449 dual carriageway. These are ‘orrible improved grassland, no teasels here. But there is still mistletoe on the canal and river margins, largely on mature willow this time, with much bigger balls of growth. We’re right on the Severn confluence here, and it is an interesting demo of how mistletoe grows ‘in the wild’ . One of the great mysteries of mistletoe distribution in Britain is what would be the pattern if man hadn’t cleared the woods and created fields, parks, orchards and gardens? For these are its preferred habitat – trees in open, well-lit, unshaded locations. And these would be rare in the primeval forest that should cover the UK. River margins may be one of the rare examples of a natural mistletoe habitat – the thorns and willows on their banks would be at the edge of the woodland canopy, and provide the openness mistletoe needs – as well as being preferred hosts. So these mistletoes may be truly ‘natural’ unlike those of orchards and gardens etc. Now I may be a ‘mistletoe anorak’ (as I was described by last weekend’s Telegraph) but I find that fascinating, which is why I’m drawn to each growth.

mistletoe miscellany

A mixed mistletoe day today. Everything from checking obscure refs about turn of the century mistletoe-harvesting pics (don’t ask, unless you are really, really interested…) to modern-day druidic mistletoe events… And a bit more on that mistletoe toxicity stuff from yesterday, or was it the day before?

I won’t go into the picture refs, as it would take an age to explain. But am keen to say more on the Druid event – but that isn’t scheduled until next weekened – so watch this space! It’s the official launch of the ‘Mistletoe Foundation’, founded by the Albion Conclave and the Druid Network (no I don’t who they are yet either). It will be the 6th day of the new moon, apparently an important time in Druid philosophy and linked to the mistletoe harvesting rite. All very mysterious – I shall report when I’ve found out more.

On the mistletoe toxicity front I’ve dusted down my notes on mistletoe medicines, particularly the anthroposophic ones (not that there are many others…) and find that nothing I said on Friday is contradicted. The anthroposophic stuff is all very mysterious (did I say that already?) and I’m hoping for a lot of enlightenment during 2005 via an Open University course I signed up to some weeks ago. It’s on ‘perspectives in complementary and alternative medicine’ but doesn’t start until Feb, so watch this space again. And I haven’t bought the set book yet either, so can’t report on that at all. I just hope I pay attention this time – on previous OU courses I’ve either done very well, or not done at all (ie ‘failed to submit’). It’s a time management thing.

So, not many hard facts to report today – all stuff for the future. There is one piece of news which has pleased me no end – the mistletoe seedling on the apple in the garden (see blog and picture from Nov 7th) has now straightened its new leaves, and looks much more impressive. I had been worried it was unwell, but am reassured. Will add a new photo soon…

Daily Telegraph article 11th December

Some further fallout from the RoSPA advice today, but nothing worth repeating. But there is a good mistletoe feature in the daily Telegraph Weekend supplement (see pic below) – covering that last auction (ever?), and featuring Stan Yapp (pictured), and a quote from me.

Er, that’s it for today.


Daily Telegraph article 11th December Posted by Hello

Mistletoe, toxicity, and Office Parties….

Mistletoe is in all the headlines! But for all the wrong reasons. RoSPA and the TUC have issued killjoy guidance for employers on office parties, and inter alia have suggested mistletoe should be banned in case it leads to sexual harassment charges! I think this is little OTT – and so do the nation’s media. The guidance certainly gets coverage, but it’s mostly poking fun at RoSPA and the TUC rather than suggesting following their guidance.

Am not sure whether this is deliberate or a cock-up on RoSPA/TUC’s part. I suspect the latter. For my part I’m interviewed briefly for Independent Radio News and point out that ‘sensible’ guidance would surely be along the following lines: Insist on following the tradition of a berry being removed for each kiss – this would ensure a more strategic approach to kisses – as these would be rationed and not the free-for-all RoSPA/TUC seem to envisage. It would also ensure all kissing would be long over before people got drunk – as there would be no berries left. Easy! And could please everyone!

Am slightly annoyed that RoSPA/TUC also include a line in their guide about mistletoe berries being poisonous – a common perception, but actually this unpleasant property belongs to the American mistletoe – not the species we use. Ours is slightly poisonous – but effects are mild, and our plant is widely used to make tea, especially in Germany.

I decide to investigate a little further, just to check my facts, and confirm that yes, Viscum album is not considered poisonous, (though it can produce nausea, so don’t try it!) by those in the know (which don’t include RoSPA and the TUC), and yes there is a lot of confusion out there! A lot of sources over here think that mistletoe, or its berries are poisonous, but on checking their information usually seems to lead back to the American not the European species. There is no perception that there is more than one species…

In the States the toxicity of their native mistletoe (Phoradendron species) is well-known, and berries (not leaves) on their decorations are often replaced by plastic. The berries are considered more toxic – but in reality it may be simply that it is only the berries that are likely to be ingested by children and pets – not the leaves.

Internet searches show that the Americans are, and always have been, also confused by the 2 Christmas mistletoe species. The current, and ‘expert’ US cancer.gov website has a summary of mistletoe extract information – but fails to differentiate between the differing species’ properties, giving the reader the impression that whilst mistletoe is deadly toxic it is also used in medicine. Not so – the toxic species isn’t the one used in medicine. This seems dangerous to me, as readers might get the impression that an extract of the American mistletoe could be used in medicine… Not a good idea (and a ‘could do better’ for the cancer.gov site compilers)

Further back in time I find that the US Agricuture Department was actually advocating use of mistletoe tea back in 1977 (AP 22nd Jan 1977). It’s not clear whether they meant native or European mistletoe, or whther they knew the difference, but it led to a lot of debate… Within 24 hours (AP 23rd Jan) the Poison Control Centre in New York was contradicting them and advising people NOT to drink mistletoe tea as American mistletoe is toxic. But still no mention of what species the Agriculture guys were talking about – only that they were talking about ‘commercial’ mistletoe tea. By the 24th the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had also weighed in against drinking the tea. But which species…???

There is no answer from the AP archive, but perhaps a key clue from the Wall Street Journal 2 years later. This reported (Dec 13th 1979) that the FDA had seized 168 boxes of imported mistletoe tea as it ‘could be poisonous’. No details are given, but I think the keyword there is ‘imported’. It was probably harmless European mistletoe tea…, and perhaps that what was being promoted all along…

Rothamsted

Off to Rothamsted Research station this evening – to speak to local branch of the Institute of Biology on, er, mistletoe. I cut it fine as the journey along M25 and M1 was at crawling speed – what is it with our road system? – this was at 6.30 in the evening! And obviously so common a phenomenon it didn’t even make it to the local radio traffic reports.

But I got there, just in time, and had a good evening with a small, but I think appreciative, audience.

Whole evening slightly overshadowed, for me, over that journey time. Particularly annoying as I had been due at a meeting in London and so could have been there much earlier – except that that meeting had been cancelled (a dayjob problem – all to do with the SWRDA… who seem slightly incompetent – but don’t quote me on that as we need their money…). But if I had gone to the earlier meeting I’d have got to Rothamsted on time, and maybe even managed to nip out to Kew to look at Masaya’s mistletoe seedlings in the afternoon… Ok I’ll stop moaning now.

6th December Part 1

Another mistletoeful day. Off to Tenbury Wells to meet up with Stanley Yapp, the well-known mistletoe-grower and harvester. We’re due to take part in a BBC TV interview, firstly in his orchards and later at the market, where mistletoe should be arriving for tomorrow’s auction.

I drive up early and call at the market first. Nick Champion is already inspecting the lots, and the place look full, despite the early hour. Not so much material as last week, but Nick isn’t expecting much more. I check he’s still ok for the BBC crew to visit later and then drive up to Stan’s place.

I’d not been to Stan’s before, and am impressed by the solitude – a gated road, and a tiny house. Plus lots of apple trees, mistletoe, sheep, and one bull. Stan and I chat about mistletoe matters, and I become aware we have an unspoken ‘rivalry’ for mistletoe media stories. I reckon Stan wins, especally with his supplying the Chinese Government once. I’ve got a few choice stories up my sleeeve, but these are embargoed for now – more next Christmas if these come off…

A few false starts as the others struggle to find the place but eventually we’re all assembled – Sarah Mukherjee (BBC Environment Correspondent), cameraman (Larry?), Alec Wall (local rep from the new Mistletoe Festival group), Matt Shardlow (entomologist from the Conservation group Buglife) plus me and Stan.



Stan Yapp being filmed (click to enlarge) Posted by Hello