Many of my mistletoe talks this season have had a history theme, looking back at mistletoe in days gone by – both ancient (myth, legend etc) and modern, describing how Christmas demand for mistletoe from the 19th century onwards made it a saleable product, not just a curious tree parasite.
The trade in mistletoe grew and grew – built on the growing popularity of the kissing custom in the Victorian era and a desire, requirement even, for every home to have some mistletoe at Christmas. This demand led to a massive trade in harvested mistletoe, mostly from apple orchards where it is easily cut. And most of those orchards were, some still are, in the south west midlands of England and, of course, abroad in France where mistletoe grows abundantly.
Stories of this trade are fascinating – it was very significant, with huge amounts being shipped by train around the country, across the channel from France and even, before the advent of air travel, shipped from Britain out to Australia, South Africa etc. The ‘colonies’ wanted proper mistletoe, even if it was a few weeks in transit and a bit shrivelled on arrival.
These days the quantities traded are much smaller – though most is still cut from apple trees in SW English midland and French orchards. Firm trade figures are almost impossible to obtain as so much is traded informally now – there are no tonnages for ships or railways, it’s just cut and freighted in lorries, vans and trailers with no documentation required. The only regular source for trade figures is Tenbury Mistletoe Auction, but even this only give a small snapshot of the overall trade as only a fraction of the trade, and certainly none of the imported mistletoe (which is probably the majority), passes though here. So, data from here shouldn’t be used in scientific analyses of the trade (you know what I’m talking about Jeff!).
But if there are no overall trade figures how can I say quantities have decreased? Well, technically I can’t, obviously. But several factors suggest major change – not least the amount available to harvest is much less as there are far fewer suitable orchards here or abroad. Another major factor is the much more laidback approach to kissing we have these days – mistletoe is no longer needed by many people for a quick smooch with a stranger! And then there’s plastic mistletoe – a trend that’s grown alongside artificial Christmas Trees – why worry about buying the real thing when you can use the plastic imitation you hang every year, kept in the loft the rest of the time with the lights and baubles?
Stats are very hard to come by though – the National Trust recently announced that in a survey of 240 members, when asked what Christmas traditions they no longer took part in, 31% said they no longer hang mistletoe. A small sample but, if it is reflecting the wider population, that’s a third not using mistletoe at all. And it’s not clear whether the other two-thirds use the real thing or plastic.
But that’s only a small sample, and just one survey. I recall a survey back in 2007, apparently of 3000 people, which said 9% actually pick their own mistletoe – which sounds great and suggests a thriving tradition until you realise that most of Britain has hardly any mistletoe to pick, so it’s very unlikely 9% of people even have an opportunity to pick their own. There must have been something wrong with the wording of the question, or the interpreting of the results – unless all the respondents lived in the south-west midlands. Statistics need to be treated with some caution!
And, talking of stats to be treated with caution here are the stats, so far, for the Tenbury Auctions this year, with corresponding stats from the same week in 2017 and 2018. The most recent auction was yesterday but stats for that aren’t available yet.
Mistletoe 1st Quality £/kg
Mistletoe 2nd Quality £/kg
Tuesday 26th November 2019
1.50 to average 1.00
0.50 to average 0.30
Tuesday 27th November 2018
3.00 to average 1.75
1.00 to average 0.50
Tuesday 28th November 2017
2.50 to average 1.25
0.75 per kg to average 0.25
Make of that what you will – I would caution against any serious analysis – these are just indicators of prices at one venue. The good stuff (1st quality) is the material with good ripe white berries and deep green leaves, the other (2nd quality) had, mostly, just as many berries but in that week some were underripe and not fully white and some had the leggy-ness or the yellower leaves that always reduce the value. The only major difference to last year’s mistletoe is, from appearances, slightly smaller berries overall and perhaps slightly later ripening (arguably causing those smaller berries).
A good turn out of both people and mistletoe lots for today’s mistletoe auction at Tenbury Wells. Mistletoe looking good, lots of berries, again, though perhaps not quite as plump as some previous years. A few lots had yellower leaves – which won’t fetch as good a price as the greener stuff. But there were masses of nice green stuff too.
Some lively bidding for lovely mistletoe!
Only two auctions this year – the second and last is next week, Tuesday 3rd December.
Slide show of scenes before and during below:
More Mistletoe Information: for general mistletoe info visit the Mistletoe Pages website.
(the first of some blogs about mistletoe-themed plants)
The distinctive geometric branching of Viscum album, the classic mistletoe of legend, is one of its most distinguishing features. Each branch bifurcates once a year, creating an intricate pattern. Not all mistletoes have this property – for example the Phoradendron species used at Christmas in the US don’t – they look really quite ordinary, not like the European plant at all.
But a few other plants do have a similar pattern – though they aren’t mistletoe. The best-known of these are, perhaps, species of Rhipsalis the so-called ‘Mistletoe Cacti’.
There are about 35 species of Rhipsalis, all true cacti with leaves reduced to spines and thick photosynthetic stems, some flattened but some cylindrical. It is the cylindrical-stemmed ones that are known as the mistletoe cacti as these stems, when they divide, seem to echo the growth of our mistletoe Viscum album. Their fruits even look vaguely like mistletoe berries.
These are ‘jungle cacti’ from Central and South America, with several forms and species popular as house plants. Some are quite ‘hairy’ with fine spines coating the stems but others are virtually spine free. One of the commonest seen is Rhipsalis baccifera which, in its baldest, most spine/hairless form, is quite distinctive.
They are easily grown from stem fragments, though these take a while to root. Here (below) is my current specimen, grown from three tiny stem fragments I picked up from the ground underneath a neglected garden centre specimen some months ago (I know a bargain when I spot one!)
No flowers yet, so no berries, but it’s now growing rapidly so I hope for some soon next year…
My recent post about the new mistletoe-eating bird in Borneo reminded me of several other exotic (to us in Britain) mistletoe stories. One particular story from last year came to mind – a project in New Zealand where local residents were being given mistletoe seeds in an effort to re-establish local mistletoe species.
The project, based in Christchurch, involved the collection of seeds by local ecologists and then the doling out of 20 seeds each to local volunteers, for them to plant onto suitable hosts, especially in gardens. Participants were asked to monitor their seeds to assess success, or failure.
It’s a curious concept – but one which has echoes over here – I’ve worked with many UK conservation groups trying to get mistletoe established in parks and nature reserves –mainly in the east of England, where our mistletoe is relatively uncommon. Including some very well-known parks and a few palace gardens. And of course I’ve been involved in garden mistletoe plantings for many years, both directly and through provision of mistletoe grow-kits online.
The trick, which will probably apply to NZ as well as UK mistletoe, is to remember where (i.e which branch, and whereabouts on the branch) you planted the seeds and to be patient, as initial growth is slow and it may be several years before you get a growth of any size. I’ve lost count of the number of people who write to me, several years after planting, saying they are astonished to find their mistletoe is growing – they assumed, because they had overlooked the initial small growths, that they had failed, but actually they’d been very successful.
I’m not sure how quickly those NZ species grow – but having looked up the story again I see that 2018 was the second year of the project – I wonder whether that’s a reflection of the same problem, establishment after just one year is difficult to assess, so people try again. Although, on reading the news story published in 2018 it seems that 200 new plants had been recorded as established the year before, so perhaps those NZ species establish more quickly than ours!
The Christchurch project was led by Kristina Macdonald, an ecologist with Christchurch City Council – there’s a video with her explaining the project below. Note that she stresses the value of the plant for gardens – both as an attractive plant and as a resource for other species. For info on the original 2017 initiative click here and for the 2018 follow-up click here. As far as I’m aware this project is now completed.
You don’t have to be in NZ to grow mistletoe in your garden.