Mistletoe in Britain – a review paper

BIBpaperimageAlmost the end of January, so it will soon be mistletoe flowering season and, of course, mistletoe seed germination season. That’s one of the many odd things about mistletoe – it flowers and germinates in late winter, the season when most plants are merely beginning to plan such energetic activities.

If you’re interested in reading more about this and other odd mistletoe stuff there’s a new review, published just a month ago, in the journal British & Irish Botany.  It is, as the author (me) says in the opening paragraphs, “by no means an exhaustive review”.  In other words a lot more could be said, but the paper gives, I hope, a reasonable overview of the concepts and issues. It certainly covers a lot of ground and took a while to compile.

There will be, within a few months, another mistletoe review paper in the Journal of Ecology, as part of the Biological Flora of the British Isles series.  More about that one – a collaborative paper – when it’s ready.

Mistletoe sales – a measure of economic recovery?

US economic news organisation Marketplace visited the Tenbury Well Mistletoe Auctions a week or so ago, for a radio broadcast discussing whether mistletoe sales reflect post-covid economic recovery here in the UK. The general feeling at the auctions was upbeat, which is great – though bear in mind this was recorded just before the Omicron variant hit the news.

marketplace1Marketplace’s UK reporter Stephen Beard presents the piece, interviewing auctioneer Nick Champion, Festival organiser Diann Dowell and several buyers. Plus myself, pictured on their website with mistletoe in the back garden here in Gloucestershire.

It’s only a short piece, just over 4 minutes long, and well worth a listen – direct link to it is https://www.marketplace.org/2021/12/13/will-brits-embrace-economic-recovery-under-the-mistletoe-this-christmas/

If you’re curious about who Marketplace are (I certainly was) you can find out more on their website – they are a public service broadcaster with a mission to improve economic knowledge through accessible radio journalism. They say they have

“the most widely consumed business and economic news programs in the country. With more than 14 million weekly listeners on more than 800 local public radio stations nationwide and millions more across our digital platforms, we’ve changed the way people think about the economy.”

So probably worth bookmarking their website (or setting your smartspeaker) for more than the occasional mistletoe story.

The innocence of H1N1 and mistletoe

Discussing the mistletoe kissing crisis with a reporter recently I recalled the ‘Kissing Etiquette’ devised by Debretts, in conjunction with the Tenbury Mistletoe Festival, back in 2009. That was in the winter of the H1N1 Swine Flu Pandemic – a time that seems so innocent now.

As does the kissing advice of the day – which was, basically, that kissing on the cheeks is more hygienic that on the mouth. Which is very probably true. But it is still actual face-to-face touching, which seems unthinkable advice in these times of face-masks and social distancing. I suspect that there was only limited epidemiological content in Debretts advice at the time! They did suggest that if you felt ill you shouldn’t be at the party (what party?) in the first place – an instruction that also seems a little naïve now.

But if you were felt ok and so were attending a gathering the under-the-mistletoe technique suggested was, having asked for permission first, to do a cheek-to-cheek. Going for the other person’s right cheek first and then the other side. Keeping both encounters brief.  Not something that would be recommended now.  Apart from for fellow household members, obviously.

Debretts now, in a recent blog on The Return of the Mask make it very clear that they fully support mask-wearing and that it is good practice to wear one and to practice social distancing.

There’s no mention in that blog of kissing or indeed mistletoe.  Too tricky to tackle perhaps.  But I suspect, if they were to devise an etiquette for that now it would be much more complex than in 2009.

With perhaps a suggestion that a first step would be asking if there was permission for the gathering(!). Secondly swapping info on recent test results and level of vaccination. And thirdly, if the first two answers are satisfactory, asking whether the other person would prefer a mistletoe elbow bump, or foot-tap, or an air-kiss. Through a mask – across two metres.

The elbow-bump seems to be quite popular, though it is worth making sure you are not being presumptuous, always be sure the other party wants to greet you like this:


Plan ahead for a post-covid world – start growing your own mistletoe kisses by buying Mistletoe Grow-Kit from the English Mistletoe Shop.

Dodgy Mistletoe Spin-offs 1957: Tony Hancock, sub-Druid 476

HancockOk, this isn’t a 2021 mistletoe spin-off, it’s a January 1957 one, but re-broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra yesterday (8th December 2021). In this episode of Hancock’s Half Hour, the thirteenth in the fourth series, the lad himself (Tony H) is spooked by the unlucky number 13 (he is triskaidekaphobic) and takes to his bed, refusing to take part. He explains he’s from a suspicious part of the world (Birmingham!) and is afraid ‘the little people’ are out to get him.

He thinks that personal intervention from the (highly lucrative in gullible members’ fees) local Mystic Society can save him, so he seeks an audience with the ‘Head Druid’ (Sid James – who else? – who runs several fee-paying societies).  The Head Druid suggests salvation might be found by visiting Stonehenge, tonight, conditional on a fee of £100 (reduced from an initial suggestion of £500) for a ceremony. Hancock agrees, and the Head Druid, after Hancock has left, tells his staff;

Get the lads out of the snooker hall, we’ve got a rush job down at Stonehenge, bring the ‘oods and any mistletoe left over from Christmas, 

On arrival at the stones Brother Hancock announces that;

I’ve brought me robe, me rabbit’s foot, me clover and me mistletoe and me pack of cards

He’s told to put the cash down on the sacrificial stone, after which he’ll be tied to a stone and has to count to 1000 whilst the, er, ‘little people’ run off with the cash. Hancock is later arrested by the Stonehenge police (Kenneth Williams) who apparently take the stones home every night for safe-keeping. During his arrest Hancock cries out;

Mind my mistletoe!

And, er that’s it.  This was cutting edge comedy in 1957…

The BBC broadcast is available on BBC Sounds for a while but there’s also a version on YouTube.

On the YouTube version the initial introduction of the Head Druid is at 12.50, Hancock’s chat with him is at 14.30, the instruction to the lads is at 18.34, the ceremony begins at 21.10, the arrest is at 26.26.


Omicron! Snog, Mistletoe, Avoid?

Having never watched the BBC TV Series ‘Snog Marry Avoid?” I know very little about it, except that it is about whether someone is more, or less, attractive after a make-over.

vaccineNicking the concept for Covid-19 variants, I wonder whether someone standing under mistletoe this December will be more, or less, attractive now that we have the Omicron variant.

Less attractive is, logically, the answer, and now we have a relatively sensible government minister (a puzzling paradox!) who is advising people not to kiss under mistletoe.  Thérèse Coffey has said,:

“For what it’s worth, I don’t think there should be much snogging under the mistletoe.”

So is Thérèse a Health Minister?  No, she’s the Work and Pensions Secretary.  The Health Minister Sajid Javid has said people shouldn’t change plans for gatherings but should consider a lateral flow test before attending.  Prime Minister Boris Johnson (an even more puzzling paradox!) has dismissed scientific advice and told people to carry partying.  So that’s clear then, Sajid and Boris say party on, despite advice to the contrary, Thérèse suggests (on the Peston ITV programme, 1st Dec, about 45 minutes if with ads) active avoidance of risks.

This may be good for people’s health, but it’s not good for the mistletoe custom or the mistletoe trade.

This issue was, of course, similar last year when we emerged from lockdown at the start of December only to find ourselves in three, later four, levels of restrictions, with Christmas gatherings eventually severely restricted.

There was relatively little kissing under mistletoe then – and perhaps there’ll be even less this time round.  Apart from those within your immediate household – but only doing that ruins the concept for many!

Interestingly the  impact on demand last year was never actually assessed.  It would be difficult to do, but I will see what I can find out…

In the meantime here’s a link (to Sky’s facebook page) to my interview on Sky News, 12 months ago, discussing exactly this issue (though then the Tenbury Mistletoe Auctions had been cancelled, this year they’ve gone ahead).  There are some good bits about mistletoe air-kissing and mistletoe elbow-bumping.  [Probably best to ignore most of the comments though!]


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.

Mistletoe and Orchards on ITV today

Plenty of mistletoe mentions on ITV this morning – all within the 2 hour show Love Your Weekend with Alan Titchmarsh (on ITV Hub here).  Helped along a bit by Sir Cliff ‘Mistletoe and Wine‘ Richard being the main guest.

Christmas swag-making featured about 30 minutes in – with plenty of mistletoe incorporated into a very long decoration.  Some good mentions of how sticky the berries are, and their need for light when germinating, but then Mr Titchmarsh ruined the illusion that, for once, here was a TV Gardener who knew how to grow mistletoe, by stating, categorically, that berries had to be ‘rotten’ before the seeds would germinate.  Where on earth did he get that bit of nonsense from??  Berries have to be mature (which they will be in February/March, not now) but not rotten.   How would being rotten help?!  They germinate best when fresh and healthy.  Yet another TV Gardener getting it wrong (see many previous blogs over many years).  I really do despair.

In mid-flow….

All the more frustrating because I had helped make this programme – their Tree of the Week was Apple, using footage taken in an orchard session with me back in October, with Lesley Joseph’s voiceover referencing the link between apple trees and mistletoe (49 minutes in if you watch it) and then a session with me talking about mistletoe, in that same Gloucestershire orchard, at 76 minutes* in. Nice little bit of film, didn’t realise my hair was getting so grey though!

And, towards the end (about 105 minutes in) another nod to apple trees and Gloucestershire orchards when Alan and Sir Cliff sample some liqueurs, including an Eau de Vie made from apples grown in a heritage varieties orchard in Gloucestershire.

Apples trees, orchards and mistletoe – what’s not to like?  Just incorrect (as usual) TV Gardener advice!

(*timings are all from the 2 hour programme as broadcast.  If you’re watching on ITV Hub it’s 30 minutes shorter (fewer ads) so my bit is at about 59 minutes in.  If watching ad-free on ITV Plus it will, I assume, be even earlier.)

And, Alan, if you’re reading this, if you do want to grow mistletoe why not learn how using a Mistletoe Grow-Kit?  Available from the English Mistletoe Shop website at englishmistletoeshop.co.uk

And for more general mistletoe Information visit the Mistletoe Pages website.

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 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