Mistletoe Auction Time

trading6The first Mistletoe Auction of the year takes place tomorrow morning, which to many means the proper start of the mistletoe season.

The auctions are run by Nick Champion and are held at at Burford House Garden Centre, Burford, Tenbury Wells, WR15 8HQ.  Details on Nick’s website nickchampion.co.uk but shortcut for buyers is nickchampion.co.uk/site/assets/files/1015/buyers_information_2021.pdf and for sellers (too late for tomorrow now but there’s another next week!) is nickchampion.co.uk/site/assets/files/1015/sellers_information_2021.pdf.

IMG_20211122_145853The berries are already nice and white – and  there’ll be more mistletoe news here soon.

It’ll be mistletoe time again soon

With just a few days until October, we’re yet again at the start of the mistletoe season. So it is perhaps time for a quick review of how things are looking this time round:

As is fairly usual these days, there’s a reasonable crop of berries forming, so it could be another good year for quality mistletoe. This seems to be the norm, and indeed there is research that suggests berry numbers per branch don’t, often, change much from year to year.

mtoe27thsept2021This might seem surprising – but, assuming pollination is successful, shouldn’t be when you consider how the plant grows. Each branch divides into two exactly once a year and each of those two new branches has identical terminal flower buds, every year. So there shouldn’t, logically, be much alteration in number of flowers, for any given section of branch, year on year, as the pattern and number of flower buds stays exactly the same. The main variant will be the amount of insect pollination of each flower in February/March and in the mild winters we get these days insect availability, for this essential role is, it seems, always sufficient.

There are other variables in ‘quality’ of course such as the green-ness of the leaves (many plants are yellowy-green and of less value even with berries) and the legginess of the branches (compact short internodes seem more attractive) and whether male mistletoe (which never has berries) has been mixed in with the female.

All of this is relevant to mistletoe sales, the most well-known of which are the auctions at Tenbury Wells, cancelled last year because of the pandemic. There was, at that time, much talk of mistletoe shortages as a result, but my impression was the reality was different, and there was still plenty of mistletoe to be had. This does highlight the fact that, contrary to popular belief (especially in the media), the Tenbury auctions are not the only way to trade mistletoe! Indeed most of what’s seen in supermarkets and greengrocers may not be from Tenbury at all, and might not even be of British origin. Imports of mistletoe from mainland Europe have been significant since the late 19th century. It’s not all about Tenbury.

That last point might imply new and different trouble ahead – because the UK has left the EU trading bloc. Last autumn the UK was still in the ‘transition period’, not actually in the EU but still with freedom of trade. That ended in January 2021 and new rules on trade are now in place – or would be if the Government didn’t keep kicking them into the long grass rather than tackling the problem they’ve made.

For cut mistletoe, assuming it is classified as a cut flower, the rules are, at first sight, simple. Cut flowers originating in the EU have a zero-rated import tariff, so basic prices should not go up (though 8% tariffs were expected at one point in the discussions). That sounds good, but it’s not quite that simple, as there is still paperwork that wasn’t needed before – customs forms etc. This requires more work, adds more cost and reduces the attractiveness of the trade.

The paperwork might get very onerous if phytosanitary certification is needed. Leaving the EU means that the UK is now longer in the same phytosanitary area and imports and exports of plants or plant parts, may need such certification*. Indeed this was, and still is, the plan for cut flowers, with phytosanitary inspections due to have started last April. Happily, for this Christmas season at least, this isn’t yet needed, as the deadline for starting inspections of cut flowers has, like many other deadlines, been extended, in this case to January 2022.

So there will, in theory, be no major barrier for mistletoe imported from EU countries this season. But I wouldn’t be surprised if less is sent, as the rules, and the constant changing of dates, can be very confusing. This isn’t new, there were trading tariffs and restrictions on mistletoe at many times in the past 100-150 years, but there have been none in recent decades, none in living memory for most traders.

reduced_res_IMG_3776Meanwhile, back at Tenbury Wells, business is, everyone hopes, back to normal this season. Auctions are planned for Tuesday 23rd November and Tuesday 30th November. Run, as usual, by Nick Champion: https://nickchampion.co.uk/auctions/holly-and-mistletoe/


gyo*PS The need for phytosanitary certification is definitely interfering with some aspects of the mistletoe trade. The Grow-Kits marketed by the English Mistletoe Shop for example, like most products sent as seeds for growing, can no longer be sent to the EU or even, at present, Northern Ireland, without individual inspection of each by a UK government inspector, with significant cost each time. There’s no suggestion that they would fail the inspection, but the additional time and cost involves simply makes the process non-viable.

A tale of two mistletoes

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. 

One seedling germinating
on Euphorbia

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…

The Mistletoe Boats

Reproduced full size below the text…

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.

And for UK mistletoe books, cards or kits to grow your own mistletoe visit the English Mistletoe Shop website at englishmistletoeshop.co.uk

Another berry good year

Loads of berries, again, on the mistletoe this year.

Which would, normally, mean lots of harvesting, sales and, of course, use of 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, that’s alright then.  Phew!

Mistletoe auctions covid-cancelled

Just a quick update re the Tenbury Wells Mistletoe Auctions – these have now also been cancelled, as well as the Mistletoe Festival.

Which seems to raise the possibility that, not only will there be no kissing under mistletoe because of Covid fears, there’ll be no mistletoe to kiss under either!

Never fear, not all mistletoe comes from Tenbury’s auctions!

There are many other ways for wholesalers, retailers and the public to buy mistletoe – it’s just that Tenbury is the best-known and most visible source.

I’ll post about some of the other ways soon….  

Mistletoe Season 2020 – this year with added Covid…

gasmaskmistletoephotoSo 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 .

And the Tenbury Wells Mistletoe Festival has been cancelled too.  As have many other mistletoe-themed events up and down the country.

The Mistletoe Auctions at Tenbury Wells are still on – this year on Tuesdays 24th November and Tuesday 1st December.  Details of those at https://nickchampion.co.uk/auctions/holly-and-mistletoe/

And mistletoe commerce online is continuing too – for instance we’re now open for Mistletoe Grow-Kit and Gift Card orders at the English Mistletoe Shop.

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….

A back garden parasitic plant safari

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).

mistletoe shoots 2020Firstly 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.

yellow rattle young shoots 2020A bit more down to earth – Yellow Rattle, Rhinanthus minor, a root parasite of grasses, growing here in a pot amongst greater quaking grass Briza maxima. 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.

orobanche shoots 2020 aVery down to earth – emerging flowering shoots of Ivy Broomrape, Orobanche hederae, 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…

nettle dodder 2020Up 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, Urtica dioica subsp. galeopsifolia, which is slightly more garden- and human- friendly.

gorse dodder shoots 2020And, 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.

lousewort 2020And, 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…

Spring – mistletoe has nothing to do but grow…  

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.

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Mistletoe on BBC R4 this morning

Happy Christmas! And if you want a mistletoey start to your day have a listen to today’s Farming Today on BBC R4 – which is all about mistletoe, including an interview with me.

Available (for a while at least) on BBC Sounds App or on the website: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000cmt2