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…
Ten years ago, deep in the Borneo rainforest, a new species of bird was spotted feeding on berries from one of the local mistletoe species. Small, grey but quite pretty it was given the name Spectacled Flowerpecker – but not, at the time, a formal scientific name because that needs formal examination and description – which means a bird in the hand, not in the bush.
This year, 2019, a specimen was finally caught, an incidental capture as part of a wider study with mist nets, and so it was properly documented and given a formal scientific name: Dicaeum dayakorum. The specific part is in honour of the indigenous Dayak people who live in and help protect the bird’s native forests. Here’s the header (click to enlarge) from the formal paper describing it – the full paper is at https://www.biotaxa.org/Zootaxa/article/view/zootaxa.4686.4.1
The genus Dicaeum, by the way, includes numerous other species of flowerpecker, many also feeding on mistletoes. These include the Australian Mistletoe Bird Dicaeum hirundinaceumwhich featured in one of the BBC TV’s David Attenborough natural history series some years ago. The broadcast clip showed a bird wiping the semi-digested mistletoe berry, complete with seed, from it’s er, bum, onto a branch. Very efficient. It’s not clear whether the Spectacled Flowerpecker is that good or whether it’s more of a hit’n’miss mistletoe spreader like our own Mistle Thrush (see various older mistletoe diary entries …).
Mistletoe seed distribution – why leave it all to the birds?