In France the annual mistletoe ‘harvest’ is, or was, misnamed – as for many years it was really the mistletoe cull. Le Gui was once banned by law from growing in French pommiers (apple orchards) and growers were obliged to cut it out of all trees.
[This pic represents French harvesting from less-regulated times – it’s Henri-Paul Motte’s 1900 painting of (Gaulish?) druids harvesting mistletoe.]
Now there are a lot of pommiers in northern France, supporting huge amounts of mistletoe. Fortunately for the French, the gullible British were always ready to buy their mistletoe prunings – and so the cull became an profitable export industry. The French were (and possibly still are) puzzled about why we wanted it –‘did we eat it’ they asked a bemused Keble Martin [famous Brit botanist] on a cross-channel ferry piled high with the stuff in the 1890s.
The French, unlike us reserved Brits, don’t need excuses for kissing – which may explain their bewilderment. They do use mistletoe – but for other things, with traditions more strongly related to the New Year. Au Gui L’An Neuf!, which vaguely translates as With Mistletoe the New Year!, is an ancient phrase of uncertain origin, but may relate to the value of mistletoe as a Porte Bonheur – a good luck charm.
Why am I going on about the French and their mistletoe? Well, I was looking for some pictures of the traditional English harvest – but failed to find any. But there are numerous historic drawings of the French harvest – suggesting a stronger cultural awareness of the actual harvest than over here. I’m posting some pics below of the La Cueillette du Gui (the gathering of the mistletoe) dating from the 1870s through to the 1930s, rounded off with French mistletoe arriving at Southampton and thence to London. Including a WW1 pic of our lads taking a day off from the trenches to buy some mistletoe.
The French harvest, and export to Britain, continues today – though not by steamship and train these days. I get occasional queries from ex-pat Brits who’ve acquired a little pommier in their French retreat, and want to know how to market it. A difficult one to answer really, as I’m no expert on wholesaling, and am also, naturally, a keen exponent of the English Harvest. And some of ‘em have email addresses that don’t work (that means you Charlotte Cahill).
Picture of 1870s harvest – to be inserted, can’t find it!
1914 French Mistletoe Harvest
Tommies buying mistletoe 1916 (not sure who they thought they were going to kiss – probably not the ladies in the picture)
1920s photo of French Harvest
1930s colour drawing of French Harvest
French Mistletoe on the quayside at Southampton 1930s
French Mistletoe arriving at Nine Elms Station, London