There’s a new mistletoe species here at Mistletoe Towers, all the way from Africa originally. Though this particular set of seeds came from, er, Malvern.
It is Viscum minimum, related to our familiar Viscum album, but, as the name suggests, a much reduced plant. Tiny actually.
I haven’t ever grown it before, though have seen several specimens grown indoors. For it isn’t an outdoor species, not here in Europe, as its hosts are tropical succulents. Euphorbias in fact, themselves related to the familiar milky-juiced plants of gardens and woodlands. In Africa succulent Euphorbias occupy a similar niche to the cacti of North America. Thick-stemmed, often rounded, plants with minimal leaves, adapted for life in very dry conditions. They are often mistaken for cacti.
V.minimum, also succulent and minimally-leaved, is a wonderful example of how the mistletoes are adapted to a huge range of hosts. It lives within the tissue of the Euphorbia, with minuscule succulent leaves of its own, on the host surface. The biggest features are the flowers, followed by red berries, also close to the host surface.
My plants are, at present, simply germinating seeds, not much to look at yet. Only time will tell if they get established. So far they look, not surprisingly, very similar to Viscum album seedlings (see pic of one of those on the right). They are nearly 2 months old now and there are three that look promising. But none have yet established a hold fast on the host, so nothing is yet certain.
The pictures below show two completely different Euphorbias on which Viscum minimum seeds have been placed. There are close-ups of the germinating seeds. Note how much the two Euphorbias have grown in the 2 months I’ve had them. Much faster growing than cacti. Though they haven’t been slowed down by the mistletoe yet…
Going through old trading accounts of mistletoe ( as I am today, compiling some figures for a research paper) I’m often surprised at the attention given to mistletoe imports, once acknowledged to be the main source of Christmas mistletoe in Britain. Yes we do grow our own, and do still cut and sell our own, but there was once and probably still is a flourishing trade in imports, mainly from France.
Newspaper coverage of these used to dominate mistletoe stories at Christmas, with comparatively little attention paid to the home-grown stuff. It’s not clear why this is – whether the imports really did outweigh the home-grown stock so much or whether a boat-load of mistletoe was simply a better story. So it may have been selective reporting.
Whatever the reason these stories have died down in recent years, with most media attention paid to home-grown mistletoe, especially that sold at the Tenbury Wells Mistletoe Auctions. This is also selective reporting as there is much sold by other means and a lot still imported.
But getting a complete picture is virtually impossible – not least as there are no trade restrictions and so no need to document imports from France. This may well, of course, change soon as the UK moves out of the EU transitory arrangements in 3 weeks time! Almost certainly not for the better.
It’s worth noting that trade tariffs for mistletoe imports are not unprecedented – indeed in the 1930s and 40s there were import licences on most cut flowers including mistletoe. These were often relaxed seasonally for mistletoe – but sometimes only a week or so before Christmas thereby raising prices up to that point. Who knows what 2021 will bring??
Much of the newspaper coverage of imports concentrates on simple figures – wowing the reader with tonnages, numbers of mistletoe-filled crates, etc. But there are occasional longer reports, and some quite hair-raising stories of decks piled high with mistletoe crates.
This cutting is from 17th December 1936, and is written by (or as if by) ‘Mademoiselle Marie’ a French lady travelling by ferry across to England. It’s a neat account, right down to the detached white berries rolling around the quays and decks, a vision familiar to anyone who has prepared mistletoe in bulk. [whilst they’re rolling they’re fine, it’s when you tread on them that the fun begins as they stick to your shoes, and later on to the carpet].
Have a read (reproduced full size below); it sums up the whole business in France, when mistletoe was cut deliberately to control it and sold to le britannique crédule for profit. The only thing I’d query is the mention of the children dressed as guisers in Edinburgh. Mademoiselle Marie says she’s told ‘guiser’ is derived from Gui, the French for mistletoe. This seems not only unlikely but at odds with the normal explanation of the term, often used at Halloween these days, as simply a shortened version of disguisers – i.e children dressing up in costume.
Mistletoe Information: for general mistletoe info visit the Mistletoe Pages website.
Loads of berries, again, on the mistletoe this year.
Which would, normally, mean lots of harvesting, sales and, of course, useof mistletoe.
But we have two problems this season, already mentioned in recent posts, both caused by the Covid pandemic. Firstly fewer mistletoe sales – the Tenbury Wells Auctions are cancelled. And secondly social distancing – how can you kiss under mistletoe when you can’t get closer than 2 metres and wearing a mask?
A flurry of media interest in both these problems this week – in the tabloids (Daily Star on Tuesday, The Sun today) and on the telly (Sky News yesterday). You might think it’s yet another doom’n’gloom story and it is for some – certainly those sellers and buyers who use the Tenbury Auctions. And it is tragic for Tenbury Wells itself – losing one of its main attractions this year. The many other mistletoe suppliers (direct wholesale sellers and online retail sellers) may be finding themselves rather busy as there will be more demand from them. Assuming people actually want mistletoe of course – there will be reduced demand from commercial venues at least.
But there is some humour to be had – at least concerning how to kiss, or not, under mistletoe during a pandemic. The Star billed it as Snog Off, Sky News as Kissless Christmas and my suggestion of mistletoe elbow-bumping instead does make people laugh (even though I’m quite serious about it…). The Star had that on the front page as Elbow Bump under the Mistletoe Anyone? And Sky News were just happy I’d cheered them up with elbow bumps, and mistletoe air-kissing through a mask at 2 metres, after a long session of depressing mainstream stories.
The Sun’s online story (I haven’t seen the print edition yet) today claims that they’ve asked Downing Street whether there will be a mistletoe ban! And reckons they got this answer:
The PM’s spokesperson said that the Government would not seek to ban the popular Christmas treat over fears that people won’t stick to social distancing.
So here we go again, another mistletoe season on the horizon. But can mistletoe work its magic with Covid-19 restrictions? Will kissing a stranger be a possibility this season? Is a quick snog with a friend achievable? We shall see. Though I think I can predict much of the answer already!
But whatever happens I’m fairly confident people will still be celebrating with and hanging up mistletoe. Even if those mistletoe kisses end up being reduced to mistletoe elbow bumps or mistletoe foot foot waggling. It could be interesting. And it’s the concept that counts – and this year the kissing may well be only conceptual.
Mistletoe events this year are, not surprisingly, fewer than normal. Nearly all my own bookings for evening events have been cancelled and I’m expecting the remaining ones to be closed soon .
So all is not lost – and I’ll be blogging about mistletoe on and off through the season. I’m also working on two formal papers reviewing mistletoe in Britain – and will report on progress of those as they develop. More soon….
Parasites in lockdown – a round-up of the parasitic plants I’m growing in our garden this year, so far: Not just mistletoe, but also dodders (two species), broomrape (one species – another due soon) and yellow rattle. And an aspiration for Lousewort and a hope of Toothworts (two).
Firstly mistletoe, obviously. There’s lots of that (I wonder why?!). These are young growths, about 4 or 5 years old, planted by Blackcaps on an already mistletoe-laden apple. Looking particularly splendid at the moment with the new lighter-green shoots and leaves.
A bit more down to earth – Yellow Rattle, Rhinanthusminor, a root parasite of grasses, growing here in a pot amongst greater quaking grass Brizamaxima. Yellow Rattle is, like mistletoe, only a hemi-parasite as it has its own green leaves, linking, in this case, to the host grasses via the roots. Pretty flowers in summer – these are only young shoots.
Very down to earth – emerging flowering shoots of Ivy Broomrape, Orobanchehederae, at the base of some ivy in a pot. It’s a full parasite – no chlorophyll of its own – that parasitises ivy roots. Fairly easy to grow – I’ve been growing this for many years now – but unpredictable year to year – these are the only visible shoots from several previous locations (and ivy-filled pots) round the garden that we have this year. They’ll be 6 inches or more high when they’ve fully grown – unless the slugs and snails get to them first. Which they sometimes do. Will be trying some more Orobanches later this year…
Up in the air again – this is Greater Dodder, Cuscuta europaea, which parasitises nettle stems by winding round them and linking into the host vascular system. No leaves, so these are fully parasitic, unlike mistletoe. They germinate in soil but become detached from the ground once they’ve reached a host stem. Nettle is the nominal host but they will twirl and link to any plant within reach later on – they seem to really like the Epilobium stem nearby (see pic). This is my second season of growing these – including on the stingless form of stinging nettle, Urticadioica subsp. galeopsifolia, which is slightly more garden- and human- friendly.
And, a first for us for 2020, another dodder – Cuscuta epithymum – smaller than the nettle one but more familiar to most as the pink stems that festoon and parastise gorse on moorland in the summer. These are, so far, tiny seedlings from seed I (and John Hollier) gathered in north Devon last summer. I’m trying them in pots of gorse – only a few have reached the host stems so far, and where they have done this the tiny white and yellow parasite seedlings are just beginning to grasp the hosts. They’re a long way from those massive pink growths of late summer.
And, to represent some missing parasites, here’s a pic of some rather dry-looking Lousewort, Pedicularis sylvatica, taken this week not in the garden but up a hill in West Devon (despite the lockdown – we are allowed a bit of exercise!). It normally likes it marshier than this so it isn’t very happy! A similar concept to Yellow Rattle, parasiting roots.
Hoping to grow this next year – and also hoping to get some progress with the Toothworts – common and purple – neither of which I’ve had success with, yet…
April, in lockdown, and the main mistletoe action season is over – berries ripened (Nov/Dec/Jan), seeds planted (Feb/March), flowers over (Feb/March), pollination done (Feb/March).
From now until next winter mistletoe has nothing to do but grow. For the seedlings it’s a bit more challenging – they still have to link into their new host’s vascular system, but for a mature mistletoe there really isn’t anything else to do now. Just grow new shoots and new leaves and, for the female plants, slowly develop the berries over the next 9+months.
This pattern dictates the year for a mistletoe specialist like me – once April comes the talks have finished, the enquiries dry up and we stop sending out grow-kit orders. Time to take stock. Especially this year as we’re in lockdown because of coronavirus.
This is a time for other plant parasites though, so I may post some news about those soon – dodders, broomrapes, toothworts – this is the start of their time for germination and flowering.
Not forgetting mistletoe though, obviously, so here are a few pictures of the orchard at Standish Court, taken yesterday, showing apple trees festooned with mistletoe. Too much mistletoe actually – you’ll see in some pics some trees have been blown down, possibly weakened and top heavy due to mistletoe. The standing tree with most mistletoe is, I’d suggest, doomed unless urgent remedial action is taken to strip off most of the mistletoe. A few mistletoe growths are fine – indeed I encourage it in moderation – but this many growths mean the tree’s not able to produce enough leaves to keep itself alive (the mistletoe leaves give nothing to the tree) and it will, sadly, die.
Note, by the way, that the trees in blossom are pears, which bloom earlier than apple. Mistletoe dislikes pears but loves apples, so there’s a marked contrast at this time of year – pears are all in blossom, apples are not – but, in this orchard at least, they are covered in mistletoe.
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).