Every year. EVERY year. The media, even the gardening media, peddle rubbishy old nonsensical myths about how to grow mistletoe. Yesterday BBC Radio 4 Gardener’s Question Time were telling people to make a hole in the bark, stick the seed in and, wait for it….. seal it in with Sealing Wax!!! An astonishing thing to suggest – not least because who has a stick of Sealing Wax handy these days?
Meanwhile Smallholder Magazine’s January issue is telling people to cut flaps in bark, stick the seeds under and bind it all up with hessian.
These are not unusual – gardening lore for mistletoe is full of these weird, mediaeval-sounding methods. Even the official RHS ‘Advice’ does so.
And then they say ‘only one in ten seeds germinate’ (RHS, Smallholder magazine) or that successfully growing mistletoe is the ‘Holy Grail’ of gardening (BBC GQT). In other words they think it is fiendishly difficult.
Well yes, if you follow their methods it is. As their methods will inhibit germination and kill the seeds.
Whereas, if you apply the tiniest piece of common sense and think about how mistletoe spreads naturally – by birds wiping or excreting seeds onto branches, whereupon they germinate and grow – you’ll realise that there’s no alchemy to this. The seeds just need to be put on a branch.
The seeds need light, need to penetrate bark their own way and need space to grow. None of which they get if you’ve buried them in an early grave inside the tree. The seeds just need to be put on a branch.
Every year there are media stories on – how shall I put it? – the potential ‘nuisance’ caused by the mistletoe kissing custom. Usually this centres on the dreaded Office Party. But this year is worse than most – the press, inspired by the avalanche of molestation stories, is overflowing with dire warnings about mistletoe.
I should report on that, as it is a serious issue and there are ways (mistletoe ‘etiquette’) to at least reduce the risks.
But not yet. Today I’d prefer to be a little more light-hearted and cover mistletoe kissing in the right spirit. So here’s an innocent video from 1992 – a TV advert for Yellow Pages. This was immensely popular, and was re-used by Yellow Pages every Christmas for several years.
It’s not shown anymore though – probably because Yellow Pages is no longer as thick!
Turdus ipse sibi malum cacat, an old latin proverb, relates directly to mistletoe, and to the capture of birds. It translates as ‘the thrush excretes its own trouble (or death)’ and is all about Birdlime, a sticky substance once used widely to capture small birds. One of the traditional, and perhaps fundamental, ingredients of Birdlime, was mistletoe, especially the sticky juice form the berries. The proverb is about mistle thrushes, eating mistletoe berries and creating long strings of sticky turds, formed of semi-digested mistletoe gunk, very similar to manufactured birdlime.
It seems an odd concept now, the idea of taking a load of mistletoe berries to make a gluey paste to then capture birds. Why and how would it be done? And how long ago did this start? The latin saying has origins over 2000 years ago, with early attributions including Plautus (254-184 BC) and slightly later ones to Athenaeus (2nd-3rd century AD). It was repeated in various forms over the centuries, notably by Erasmus (1466-1536) in his Adagia (c 1500). This antiquity does raise some questions over which thrush and which mistletoe is meant (Plautus was based in Italy, 2200 years ago) but, putting that aside, it does seem to make sense – if birdlime is indeed made from mistletoe berries.
As for why and how, the why is to capture birds for food or, sometimes, for caged birds. The how is simple – smearing the birdlime onto branches, sometimes with a a tethered captured bird to lure others in. It sounds old and barbaric – and it is. But it is also an ongoing phenomenon in some countries around the world, including, apparently, in Europe (see this story from 2007). The indiscriminate nature of this trapping method was and is a particularly nasty aspect. Spain continued (and possibly still does continue) the practice until recently – a 2004 EU review of the legality is outlined here and some more news on this from 2006 is outlined here.
But, getting back to the Birdlime itself, was this really made from mistletoe and if so was it really from the berries? That’s certainly what the proverb implies – but in reality many Birdlime recipes exist and mistletoe isn’t often a major ingredient. Interestingly (just to keep a seasonal theme!) Holly bark is a major ingredient in many European recipes, boiled up to create a sticky mess. Slippery Elm bark appears in US recipes. Mistletoe also features in these recipes, but some refer to Loranthus europeaus, the yellow berried (and disappointingly deciduous!) mistletoe of central southern Europe. Plautus might have known that mistletoe better than our white-berried Viscum album.
So whilst mistletoe was an ingredient it may never have been the primary one, and it may not even have been our mistletoe. But let’s not let that get in the way of a good story…
My favourite version from the historic accounts isn’t Plautus, but good old Aesop (620 – 564 BC) in his fables, where the story is referenced in the fable ‘The Owl and the Birds’. This isn’t, probably, an Aesop original but one of the many added in later editions, so it is not as old as his dates imply. You only find it in some of the longer compilations, and even then the mistletoe story is only mentioned as part of a general warning to the birds of other risks. Here’s the story from the Folio Society version:
There’s a lot more to say about Birdlime – I’ll post Birdlime #2 in a few days…
Two more grand old mistletoe men were lost to us in 2017 – Reg Farmer and Alec Wall – both of Tenbury Wells. I first met them both back in 2003, or maybe 2004, I can’t recall exactly. They were hoping to promote Tenbury Wells’ mistletoe heritage at a time when it seemed that the mistletoe auctions were soon to cease. Others involved were Stan Yapp (the ‘Mistletoe King’, who died in 2013 aged 80) and local author Jen Green (still with us as far as I’m aware!). They persuaded me to join their campaign and the five of us formed a business partnership – Tenbury English Mistletoe Enterprise, or TEME for short.
Reg, a farmer by profession as well as by name, died in August, aged 88, after a remarkable career in local government and politics, beginning in 1961 on Lindridge Parish Council and only finishing in 2011, during which he spent many years representing his area at District and County level, twice as Chair of Malvern Hills District Council and also their first and only honorary Alderman. Alec, a former police detective who had retired to the area to farm at Stoke Bliss, died in September, aged 82. He too had taken an active role in local politics, also serving several stints as a local councillor.
TEME’s aims were to keep Tenbury’s mistletoe trading tradition alive through whatever trade and promotions we could think up. And we really thought the auctions would cease (the auction site was being sold and the auctioneers who ran it were moving out of town) .
On the promotional side we created the Tenbury Wells Mistletoe Festival, along with National Mistletoe Day and the Mistletoe Queen, all of which seem like long-established fixtures now. And we (mainly me actually) encouraged the druid Mistletoe Foundation to bring their mistletoe ceremony to town each year – this is also now an established fixture.
On the trading side we launched Britain’s first online mail-order mistletoe business, sending Tenbury mistletoe all over the country (and beyond!) and launching a range of mistletoe-related products including Grow-Your-Own Kits. All of this was surprisingly successful – not particularly remunerative in financial terms but immensely satisfying. And whilst TEME disbanded some years ago our online mistletoe trading concept lives on through many other similar sites – which I like to think were inspired by us.
Meanwhile, to our slight surprise but immense relief the auctions carried on, albeit at an out-of-town site, run by Nick Champion (who had been employed at the old auction yard) who set up by himself and keeps the mistletoe auctions going (to the present day).
That TEME team was a mixed bunch though – Stan was an old-fashioned farmer and mistletoe trader, Jen was primarily promotional, utilising her substantial experience in media and marketing work. Alec was the practical man, with a police and agricultural background, running all the admin (considerable for the online business), Reg, with huge local agricultural and political knowledge, was the contacts and ideas man. I, by far the youngest, brought technical mistletoe knowledge, online know-how and media and promotional experience from many years in environmental media work.
Despite, or possibly because of, this breadth of background and experience it wasn’t always sweetness and light within TEME – there were a few falling-outs now and then! And sometimes with the conservative Alec and Reg it was best (for me) to avoid mentioning politics (though I do still miss some of the arguments!). But I think TEME’s legacy is secure – the Mistletoe Festival is now well-established and mistletoe trading continues to thrive – both at the auctions (for which we can thank Nick Champion rather than TEME – though we did substantially help their promotion!) and via the various online trading companies selling direct to the public, probably inspired by TEME and most of which are still, directly or indirectly, associated with Tenbury.
So thanks Reg, Alec and Stan – for your mistletoe legacy. It was fun too.
And, if you want to try to grow your own mistletoe, Grow-Kits inspired and developed from the original ones I designed for TEME are available from the English Mistletoe Shop:
Another mistletoe auction this week – and another week with lots of lots. All very well-berried and mostly nice green foliage, so good stuff. Some lots were looking a little yellow here and there. The standard yellow auction labels tend to accentuate any yellow in the foliage – which is a little unfortunate!
Prices this week were higher than last week “1st Quality” fetched up to £3 per kg and averaged £1.50, “2nd Quality” fetched up to £1.00 and averaged £0.50. No great fortunes to be made but reassuring after last week’s low prices. Full details are on http://nickchampion.co.uk/auctions/holly-and-mistletoe/
A few pictures below – click to enlarge them.
Meanwhile back in Tenbury Wells town centre every shop was still bedecked with bunches of ribboned mistletoe, following the mistletoe festival day last weekend. And, on this visit, I had a look at Tenbury’s new Tesco, built on the site of the old mistletoe auction yard (actually the old cattle market but most famous for the mistletoe!).
This Tesco has been 7 years in the making, controversial from the start, with worries about its effect on trade in the rest of the town and, because of the riverside site, the impacts on flooding (a serious problem for Tenbury). But in May this year it was finally opened, and they’ve included a mistletoe theme around the car park! All the bollards and the frieze alongside the open ‘market’ area have mistletoe imagery.
Or do they? It’s not very convincing mistletoe! Tesco’s designers need to try harder – they’ve got the paired leaves but not grasped the equally, if not more, distinctive geometric paired stems. But it’s too late to grumble now – and at least they tried. I’d give it ‘5/10’ and a ‘See Me After Class’. Make your own mind up from the pictures below:
To be fair they’re not alone – despite mistletoe being one of our most visually distinctive plants a lot of seasonal Christmas designers end up designing the distinctiveness out. It is sometimes quite baffling!
Berkeley Power Station, the UK’s first commercial nuclear power plant, sits on the edge of the River Severn in Gloucestershire. Opened in 1962 and closed in 1989 it still dominates the area, though it is now in advanced stages of decommission. And it is surrounded by mistletoe, as this is the nucleus (geddit??) of UK mistletoe country.
Its sister Oldbury (operating 1967-2012, famous for featuring in Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who episodes) is visible a little further down river. Hinckley Point A (1965-2000) & B (1976 to date) are well over the horizon to the south, as is the controversial part-built Hinckley Point C (20??- )
Berkeley Castle, just up the road, is at the opposite extreme of modernity, lived in by the same family since the 12th Century.
But back to the mistletoe – this is the Severn Vale, home of most of Gloucestershire’s mistletoe, growing in old orchards, parkland lime trees and riverside poplars – as well as lots of other habitats and hosts. And, last Saturday, we took advantage of a sunny day (merging effortlessly into grey rain later) to walk a circuit from Bevington, just south of Berkeley town, along the high ridge of Whitcliff Deer Park, into Berkeley town, out onto the riverside at the Power Station and along the floodwall before turning back inland.
At first, not much mistletoe –the southern end of Whitcliff Park is planted with Beech and Oak, neither particularly good for mistletoe. But further north there is the inevitable line of Lime trees, typical of English Parkland and festooned with mistletoe. Further on, in the vale itself there is a glorious excess of mistletoe on many of the road and streamside (aka drainage ditch-side) Poplars with yet more out by the Power Station site. It makes for some interesting landscapes. Nothing to do with the Power Station, obviously, but did berries glow in the winter sun more than usual?
Some pictures, some with captions, below…
Lastly, some mistletoe links – for general mistletoe info visit the Mistletoe Pages website.