A quick wander round the orchards at Longney, south of Gloucester, today. These are the orchards managed by the Gloucestershire Orchard Trust – two old surviving orchards, called Long Tyning and Bollow and two newly planted orchards called, less excitingly, Middle and Lower. All adjoining the upper reaches of the tidal Severn.
Today was primarily to see how the mistletoe there is faring – and what management might be needed this winter.
Beautiful weather, unseasonably mild and with a bit of sun now and then, so no need to dress up warm. There were lots of small growths of mistletoe here and there, much of it showing a good crop of berries, not too much of it and not too little. Just the balance we need – though there will be some pruning in the next couple of months.
In Bollow, the part nearest the river, I was ambushed, as usual, by the sheep who surrounded me as soon as I appeared. Perhaps to say hello but more likely hoping I had brought food. I hadn’t so they were, as usual, disappointed.
The next event was more unusual – the sheep were joined by a cock pheasant, behaving as if he was the leader of the gang, vociferously clucking at me all the time. Odd, but just one of those things – or so I thought at first…
That pheasant then never left my side for the next 20 minutes, trotting at my heel like a dog, but occasionally lunging at me. Was he hungry or was he being aggressive? He was certainly persistent. If I ran he ran, big wide steps reminiscent of Road Runner but without the Beep Beep. Did he think I was Wile E. Coyote? I tried faux swerves through the trees to shake him off but he always caught up, sometimes even got ahead. Very odd. I do hope no one was watching.
He was so persistent and, at times, so threatening (that beak looked sharp!) that I abandoned my plan to investigate the partially fallen mistletoe-laden riverside poplar, for which I would need to crouch down. I wasn’t letting that beak anywhere near my head!
I finally shook him off by returning to the barn in the middle of the orchards and fooling him into a corner where he couldn’t follow easily because of a netting fence.
I never did find out what he wanted – but maybe it was just a peck on the cheek under the mistletoe?
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.
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.)
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.
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).
In previous years I’ve reported on the 6 mistletoe insects we have in Britain – and how we know very little about them. Indeed 2 of the 6 were only discovered here in the years since 2000 and the distribution and biology of all 6 are hardly known. But all are definitely tied to mistletoe, as they eat nothing else (except the Anthocoris bug, which eats the others).
The six are: a moth Celypha woodiana (the Mistletoe Marble Moth), a beetle Ixapion variegatum (the Mistletoe Weevil), three sap-sucking bugs Hypseloecus visci, Pinalitus viscicola and Cacopsylla visci and the predatory bug Anthocoris visci
The weevil lays its eggs inside mistletoe stems and the larva develops inside, only emerging as an adult weevil and leaving a distinctive exit hole. Affected shoots often show die-back of the terminal bud. And that’s about all that is known about it. A simple life-cycle, no complications. Or none known.
However, a recent paper by Ian Thompson and Godfrey Blunt in Field Studies journal recording studies of invertebrate communities in Shropshire orchards makes an intriguing observation. The authors made a special effort to record mistletoe insects within the orchards they visited, including collecting some mistletoe shoots with bud die-back to see if weevils emerged. Some weevils did indeed emerge from some of the samples. But from others a tiny parasitic wasp emerged instead of the weevil. It was from a genus of wasps, Triaspis, that specialises in parasitising the eggs and larvae of beetles.
The obvious inference is that this wasp was parasitising the Mistletoe Weevil larvae. The wasp proved impossible to identify to species – and so may, itself, be newly discovered and might, perhaps, be a dedicated specialist only parasitising the Mistletoe Weevil. Which only eats mistletoe, itself a parasite.
So we could have a new species and a new parasite – of an insect that eats a parasite.
Almost November, so time to look at how mistletoe is looking for Christmas this year. And, again (this is several years in a row now) it’s looking fairly good. The female plants I’ve looked at are festooned with berries and it would seem we have yet another ‘bumper crop’.
Of course it’s not a crop, not in the conventional sense of something grown for harvest, as most simply grows where it wants to and isn’t actively encouraged. But in areas and habitats where it grows well – primarily the SW midlands in mature (often over-mature) apple orchards – it can seem like a crop, and certainly can be harvested like one.
One unusual aspect this season is that many of the berries are whitening up already – whereas they normally stay green well into November. Why, I don’t know, but it does seem consistent with many other berries and fruits ripening earlier than usual this year. So far it’s only whitening from green, the later change from opaque white to translucent white usually only happens in December/January, so it will be interesting to see if that is early this year too.
First wholesale auctions of apple orchard mistletoe are at the end of November – I’ll report then on how the plants have matured, and what prices are like.
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.