Harvesting 5 English Garden Magazine feature

Jb_pic_taken_by_jason_ingramHaving been searching for pics of UK mistletoe harvesting all last week I’ve finally found some new ones – but they’re all of me!


They’re in the first media mistletoe feature of the season – in English Garden magazine’s December issue, where there is a double page spread interview feature about me and my mistletoe.  Words by Kirsty Maclean but the striking features are the pics – which are by Jason Ingram, a professional plant and garden photographer.


These were taken last December on a beautiful day in a stunning mistletoe-filled orchard in the Teme valley – dedicated mistletoe blog followers may remember me covering it then. 








Tenbury English Mistletoe Enterprise (TEME) have been getting a lot of orders already – some for delivery later, but some for early Christmas events and weddings – so the new harvest really has begun.


Mistletoe_harvest_20043_stan_3_reduced Here’s a pic of Stan Yapp, Mistletoe Man of Tenbury Wells, demonstrating his harvesting technique – climbing a ladder as far as you can go and using a hooked pole to pull the mistletoe down from above.  The UK species is somewhat brittle, so this technique works surprisingly well.














Going back a few years, here’s a young lady doing the same thing, though rather inappropriately dressed for ladder work, particularly as her young man is looking up her voluminous skirts from below.  How do I know?  Well there’s a corny poem that goes with this pic, and it concludes with the lines;

I’m poor Jack, down below, watching under

My sweet little Cherub aloft;

Should you fall – Heaven avert such a blunder!

Fall on me, you will find I am soft.



Told you it was corny.


Talking of mistletoe in poems, here’s a bit of another one, though this one is a bit more classy and by a Byron (no, not that one).  All These I Learnt by Robert Byron (1905-1941) is a poem listing the natural features, plant and animal, that he hopes his son will grow up to appreciate.  The plants are treated seasonally – here’s the mistletoe bit:


At Christmas he shall climb an old apple-tree for mistletoe, and know whom to kiss and how.

It’s not a bad poem, and if you follow this link you’ll get the Prince of Wales reading it to you!


American_mistletoe Mistletoe harvesting in the US is somewhat different.  They have a totally different mistletoe for a start.  There are several different types of mistletoe in the US – but only the Phoradendron species tend to be used at Christmas. 


As you’ll see from the pic, they are significantly different from the chunky, forked branched, paired leaved and pearly-berried European mistletoe.  They’re not even particularly attractive plants – ours is much better!





These plants aren’t as convenient as ours – they don’t frequent apple trees.  No, these tend to only grow in much larger trees, making harvesting rather difficult.  There seems to be a tradition of sending small boys up trees to fetch mistletoe down – this is an old pic from the South (I assume) but this practice still continues, though now it is cunningly marketed as ‘scouts raising money’.


The only other way is to shoot it down – a technique virtually unknown anywhere else in the world – but this is the gun-totin’ USA so it isn’t surprising.  Don’t believe me? Take a look at Wes Bennett’s demonstration in this video.

Henripaul_motteIn 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

Start of Season 5 A trip up the Hill (Gloucestershire)

Sunday afternoon, a bright sunny autumnal day, and time for a walk.  As usual we leave it a bit late, and realise we’ll be returning in darkness, but as we sometimes hear owls in the woods darkness could be a bonus.


This is a walk from Stonehouse, northwards – skirting past the empty Standish Hospital in its spacious grounds – still empty after all these years, and a local scandal.  Closed by the local NHS Trust against local and medical opinion, and now mired in discussions over who should take it over – a local community health group or a big international outfit.  Guess which the NHS and Government seem to prefer.  Click here to find out.


Gif There’s mistletoe in the grounds, but the old through-route has been blocked, possibly illegally, so we don’t go that way.  Instead we cross from Horsemarling Farm up to Arlebrook – across the now empty fields (we had an impressive maize crop in the fields nearest us this season) and then up Vinegar Hill towards Haresfield Beacon, set in open common-land at the edge of the steep Cotswold scarp.





There’s a mistletoe angle to this of course – now the leaves have largely fallen I’m hoping to see how much mistletoe grows on the hawthorns and whitebeams on the edge of the scarp.  There are scattered bushes across the area, mainly hawthorn, and it is sometimes possible to spy out an upper limit, above which mistletoe doesn’t grow (the Beacon is at 217m).


Scarp_slope_at_haresfield But mistletoe growths on these bushes tend to be small, and a bit tatty, and so difficult to spot, even close-up.  On the way up the hill we see none, even though we pass a spot where I’m sure there were some last year.  But on reflection we decide that they were on another path (you can hear our debate about this on the podcast – when I finally get round to producing it). 



Orchard_in_vale_from_haresfield So we get to the top without mistletoe – though Caroline mischievously points out we can see some – far below in a small apple orchard in the vale.  But that doesn’t count – I want to find some up top. 





Mistletoe_on_slope And of course I do – eventually – on the south side of the hill a bit further east of our route up – I have to scramble down to look at it, and take pictures.  On returning to the top, to my surprise we find a single plant, on a hawthorn right up near the summit – a tough little specimen, just about coping with the higher exposure up here.













Caroline_in_the_gloom We return along the edge of the scarp, passing all the families and dog walkers who’ve cheated and come up by car and picking up the long track through Standish Woods in the gathering dusk.  The low sun sets off the orange of the falling beech leaves beautifully – but it soon gets too dark to take pictures and we trek on through increasing darkness for the mile or so of woodland.   





Stonehouse_at_night It’s Guy Fawkes night down in Stonehouse, laid out below us, so we’re greeted, as we descend, with a constant volley of flashes and minor explosions – like a small-scale war-zone

The News of the World, one of our less (possibly the least) accurate Sunday papers, is running a story today on the predicted ‘shortage of mistletoe and holly berries’ – linked to climate change.


Their argument appears to be as follows:

  • There is a huge ‘early’ crop of both mistletoe and holly berries this season
  • This is due to climate change
  • The birds are greedily feeding on this ‘early’ feast and stripping the plants bare
  • Therefore there will be no berries left by Christmas


This is, of course, a load of utter bollocks.  The facts are these:

  • Yes, there is a huge crop of both mistletoe and holly berries this season
  • Yes, this may be (or may be not) due to climate change (there was a very bad holly berry crop last year – which suggests these are simply cyclical changes, not climate change)
  • No the berries are not early – just plentiful
  • No, the birds are not stripping the plants bare – for two reasons:
    • It has been a very mild autumn (which almost certainly is due to climate change) and this means that birds have plentiful other food still – berry-stripping is associated with the later stages of very hard winters, not the end of a very mild autumn.    
    • If there are lots of berries now, normal (and possibly less than normal) consumption by birds will mean there plenty left by Christmas.  Even with increased consumption there is plenty to go round.
  • So there will be a bumper crop of berries at Christmas, not a shortage   



Never believe what you read in the Sunday papers, and certainly not in the News of the World.  (I’m told the Daily Express has picked up the same story – not sure if that’s true, but if so they really ought to know better)

A meeting with Jen Green, Chair of the Mistletoe Festival Committee to finalise design of the Festival leaflet.


A lot of last-minute details have meant that the leaflet is just a little overdue – and, muggins that I am, it is my job to produce it. 


But this should be the last time we go through it – though inevitably we add a few bits and pieces, which means all the font sizes and line spacings have to be changed, again. 


Even after all this it goes a bit wonky at the printers – a lesson learnt there – don’t send them the editable version as their version of the software may open it slightly differently.  Always go for trusty pdfs.


I must get it uploaded now and accessible from the festival website (yes, I do that too) – in the meantime you can download it by following this link for the outside (which lists the sponsors etc), and this link for the inside (which has the events).


Note to self:  I must either a) stop volunteering for this sort of thing or b) learn how to use CorelDraw properly. 

NB am still getting podcast material as I go – but still haven’t had time for audio production…



Newnham_bridge_orchardFirst photo-opp of the season – a meeting with a reporter and photographer from, er, a well-known national newspaper – if I say who it is it’ll spoil the surprise when it comes out.  It does have a capital T in the title – which narrows the choices down a bit (discounting ‘The’). 


We’ve arranged to meet in an orchard near Newnham Bridge, just to the east of Tenbury Wells – it’s a classic old apple orchard, still very productive, though well past its prime. 


Caravan_and_half_a_house_across_the_orchIt’s in new ownership, but the new people are too busy rebuilding the house to do much to the orchard yet.  They’re having to spend Christmas in a caravan in the garden [which sounds like a hardship – but having done the same thing, by choice, for the last 2 years, I can recommend it – a bit chilly at times, but cosy and down-to-earth.  And no TV in ours either.  But I digress…]


The idea was to do a bit of harvesting for the camera, and chat about the Tenbury Mistletoe initiatives and challenges – the Mistletoe Auctions, The Mistletoe Festival and the TEME online mistletoe shop.  In attendance – me, Reg and Alec






Reg_and_photographer_with_mistletoeA beautiful day for pictures, and the photographer takes lots of pics around the orchard, including, inevitably, me up a ladder gazing lovingly into some mistletoe.  It will be interesting to see what get used.


But I must tell you the news we discussed, starting with the Auctions.  These will be in the old auction yard (more on this below) on Tuesday 28th November, Tuesday 5th December and Tuesday 12th December.  The auctioneer will be Nick Champion.


The auction venue is now owned by William Chase, best-known for Tyrrells Potato Chips.  Though there has been pressure from supermarkets to develop the site, Chase is keen on it remaining a community market area, and is doing the site up already, repairing the buildings etc, with a view to establishing a large regular Farmers Market there soon.  He is altering the layout – so that the Mistletoe and Holly Auctions this season will be at the far end of the site, which should be an improvement on the crowded lorry/mistletoe/crowds of people mix we used to have, though it will alter the atmosphere – we’ll have to wait and see what it’ll be like.


The Tenbury Mistletoe Festival will be running from Friday 24th November through to Tuesday 5th December – full details are at the Festival website.  Highlights include a 1930s Dinner Dance, the Mistletoe Ball, the Mistletoe Procession and Mistletoe Queen, a folk concert with Julie Felix and a druidic blessing from the Mistletoe Foundation.  This years Festival is being sponsored by Tyrrells (see above) – and we hope this will become a long-term partnership.


The TEME online mistletoe sales are now in their second year – with a range of mistletoe packages available to buy – plus mistletoe mugs, tea and cards and prints (the latter via Cafepress)

Travelling back to Glos from deepest Dorset – and take the chance to tour some possible and probable mistletoe sites in south Somerset.  Now, Somerset is well-known for its mistletoe, though it does rather peter out further south and east and I want see if there’s any around Montacute.


One obvious place to look is Montacute House, a National Trust property near Yeovil.  Why obvious?  Well it’s just within mistletoe’s normal UK range, and it likely to have lime avenues, a favourite location for mistletoe colonies.  [One day I’m going to get to the root of the mistletoe in Lime Avenues phenomenon – even outside the main range mistletoe is often seen in stately home lime avenues – – which suggests it was once habitually planted – but I know of no documentary evidence for this]


Montacute_drivewayAnyway, off we go to Montacute, despite the house having just closed for the season.  According to the map there are two dead-straight drives to the house from the village, and if there’s mistletoe it should be obvious.


Results are mixed – no lime avenues as such – more a mixture of specimen trees lining the drive – and yes, there is mistletoe, in, predictably, the limes.  The pic shows a view down the main drive with mistletoe clearly visible in the big lime on the right at the end.  Nice looking house, pity about the van obscuring the entrance.


From here we take a short trip to Tintinhull, another NT property a few miles away.  Now I know there’s mistletoe here as this is famous (in mistletoe biology circles) as the location for the discovery of a new (to Britain) mistletoe insect in 2003.  I’d not been there before, so was keen to take a look at the small orchard I had heard about near the house.


TintinhullIt was well worth the journey… a wonderful little conservation orchard, festooned with both apples and mistletoe, and grazed by Soay Sheep, a miniature goat-like breed. 


Unlike most sheep this lot were fascinated by our meanderings in the orchard, and some followed us around, though I think that was more to with expectation of food than any particular attachment to us.    








Soay_at_tintinhull A bit late in the year to see the insect – which is only 3mm long when mature and active.  It is a sap-sucking bug Hypseloecus visci, and its discovery in Britain brought the UK mistletoe insect total to 5 – the others are a moth, a weevil, another sap-sucking bug, and a bug that specialises in eating sap-sucking bugs.


In the absence of a bug picture, here’s a friendly sheep instead (the herd are here, according to a notice on the gate, to escape the stress of traffic and people – I was tempted to stay there with them) 







Snowberry In Tintinhull village we saw more mistletoe in wayside trees, and also, in gardens, some Snowberry (pictured) a introduced species that has white berries.  I’m not sure whether there have been any studies of what birds eat these – I have seen a Blackbird having a go at them.  But I assume the species has similar limitations to the white berries of mistletoe with regard to what eats it.  [see previous blog entry for more on this]



NB am getting podcast material from these sites as I go – but haven’t yet time for audio production…



BerriesViscum album, the scientific name for European mistletoe, tells us two things about the plant  – it is viscous and white.  Both attributes apply to the berries – which are pearly, translucent white when ripe, and, if you squeeze one, full of a very very sticky white liquid. 






Berries_in_sunAnd they’re just turning white now, the end of October/ beginning of November, having been green since the early spring.  But only on the sunny side of the tree…  berries in the shade still seem to be rather white, even now.  Looking around the mistletoe on apple trees in Painswick today I found every colour from green, white with green hints, through to full pearly white.



Greenberry Now berry colour is a big issue with our mistletoe – it is very variable even within Viscum  album and its many subspecies.  Some, in central Europe, are almost yellow when ripe (the variations have been studies by Dr Grazi in Switzerland) and there are many creamy variants too.  Down in Spain and Portugal there is a red-berried variety – though this is, properly speaking a different species Viscum cruciatum – but I have seen papers suggesting even this is merely another colour-variant of V album.


Another issue here is recognition by birds.  Studies have shown that many birds simply don’t recognise white mistletoe berries as food – they are tuned in to the usual red, blue, black and orange jobs, but not the more unusual white ones.  This isn’t really surprising as mistletoe is the only native white-berried species in northern Europe.  It has specialist feeders of course – notably the Mistle Thrush, whose latin name, Turdus viscivorous, translates as the ‘mistletoe-eating thrush’.  Which seems logical, until you realise it was named (by Linnaeus himself) after its predilection for the berries of V cruciatum in Spain – which being red, doesn’t fully explain why it’s so fond of the white V album.


Crap Maybe it just likes sticky berries.  Contrary to popular legend, the mistle thrush doesn’t wipe the seed from its beak and swallow just the berry pulp, it swallows the whole lot, and craps out the seeds en masse, in a partially-digested sticky residue left over from the seeds.


And guess what, the seeds are green – already photosynthetic, the embryonic mistletoe plant already producing its own sugars by photosynthesis.  This pic, taken this week, shows a string of the seeds, recently deposited by a Mistle Thrush.  It’s a little early in the season for successful germination (that’s best in February) but it looks as if the top seed in the line is already germinating.  Good luck to it – the bark looks a bit thick here!


It’s not just Mistle Thrushes that recognise and eat mistletoe berries – other Thrush family members join in – inc Blackbirds, Fieldfares etc.  And Blackcaps, from another bird family, play abig part too – and they are rather more fastidious, wiping each seed from their beak before swallowing the pulp.  Much better manners than Mistle Thrushes.