Mistletoe harvesting underway – everywhere…

The first of this season’s mistletoe auctions is happening on Tuesday morning – and I’m guessing that a lot of stock has already arrived on site, with more coming tomorrow. This is ‘proper’ traditional mistletoe, gathered from the old apple orchards across Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. If you want to attend you’ll need to be at Burford House Garden Stores, Burford, Tenbury Wells, WR15 8HQ on Tuesday morning. And you’ll have another chance on the following two Tuesdays.

This traditional mistletoe is, of course, the mistletoe species native to northern Europe, and the only species we have in Britain. It is the origin of all those myths and legends about mistletoe and the true mistletoe of Christmas kissing.

But there are many other mistletoes around – and in places where they don’t have Viscum album, other mistletoe species are substituted at Christmas. It’s arguably cheating, as it is our species that the kissing tradition belongs too, but it’s fun – and why not consider all mistletoes as kissing plants?

The harvest of these other mistletoes is also underway – particularly, as usual, in Texas where the Phoradendron mistletoes take the place of Viscum album, growing on Mesquite trees instead on Apple.  Texas has a long tradition of sending its mistletoe across the USA and every year there are stories about the harvest and how it’s looking.

One particular Texan story caught my attention this week – from Mason County where eight-year old Jarrett Worrell is taking the lead on his family’s new venture selling mistletoe online.  You can watch and read about him and his family talk about their mistletoe venture here: https://www.kxan.com/news/local/austin/mason-family-launches-business-to-send-texas-mistletoe-holiday-cheer/1614358422

And, if you’re in the US, you can order Jarrett’s mistletoe here:  https://masonmountainmistletoe.com/

The peaceful side of mistletoe

With the centenary of the Armistice tomorrow it seems fitting to briefly re-visit the tradition of mistletoe as a symbol of peace – which is now often overlooked.

Tradition holds that the Romans considered mistletoe a plant of parley, and that opposing armies would negotiate peace treaties under a mistletoe growth. This may, or may not, be strictly true but I doubt mistletoe played an active role in the 1918 peace negotiations.

Other traditions also reference mistletoe as a plant of peace; some versions of the Norse Baldur legend, in which Baldur is slain with a mistletoe-tipped weapon, suggest that his mother Frigga (a goddess of love) decreed that mistletoe must never do such harm ever again – and she proclaimed that all who meet under it henceforth will embrace and be friends.

The Greek legend of Aeneas visiting the Underworld also reflects an element of mistletoe as a peace symbol, with Aeneas using mistletoe, aka The Golden Bough, to gain safe passage to and from Hades.

These aspects of mistletoe tradition are rarely mentioned today – most people simply remember it as a symbol of love, friendship and romance. These are, of course, merely a variation on the same theme. The peace symbolism was perhaps remembered in mainland Europe longer than in the UK, with a strong tradition of mistletoe as a plant of good luck – a Porte Bonheur – in France well into the 20th century and maybe still today. The French New Year greeting Au Gui L’An Neuf  relates to the giving of mistletoe as a good luck gift for the New Year.

1915mtoeediteddown1But, getting back to peace itself, could it be that mistletoe actively seen as a peace symbol – particularly in the awful reality of the Great War? This was, after all, fought on land where mistletoe was still valued for its luck and peace properties.

It’s difficult to be sure – but there is a fair amount of mistletoe imagery amongst pictures of the time, including several sets where soldiers wear mistletoe in their hats. I rather doubt they were expecting to kiss anyone so it seems more likely they wore it for luck.

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There was also use of mistletoe imagery in postcards sent back from the front  – some specifically themed as Peace or Luck – so perhaps those are real proof of the ongoing, at that time, belief in mistletoe as a peace/luck symbol.  But the evidence is patchy, and those postcards could be coincidental use of mistletoe, as a Christmas symbol, simply being used in a postcard sent at Christmas.

It is tempting to make a link though – and there are other possible examples from WW2 that add a bit of weight to the concept. But these too could be coincidental. One of my favourites is a remark Winston Churchill made in December 1944, on his high-risk (but successful) visit to Athens to stabilise the situation there by negotiating with the various Greek factions. On Christmas Day 1944, after flying in secretly, he was billeted offshore aboard HMS Ajax whose captain warned him that despite his mission it might be necessary for the ship to enter into action at any time.  Churchill responded by saying:

“Pray remember, Captain, that I come here as a cooing dove of peace, bearing a sprig of mistletoe in my beak – but far be it from me to stand in the way of military necessity”.  

Was that reference to a mistletoe sprig (rather than an olive branch) merely because it was Christmas – or did Churchill understand that mistletoe was also a plant of peace?

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If you want to grow your own plant of peace and luck why not buy a Mistletoe Grow-Kit (or Grow-Kit Gift Card) from the English Mistletoe Shop?

Details at  https://englishmistletoeshop.co.uk/live/

Mistletoe ‘crop’ 2018 – looking good, ripening early?

aimage006redAlmost 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.

The pictures here were all taken in Gloucestershire Orchard Trust’s orchards at Longney, on the banks of the Severn just south of Gloucester, last week.

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Some mistletoe events at Tenbury Wells 2018

Tenbury is hosting its mistletoe auctions and festival again this year.

auction1Mistletoe Auction dates are:

  • Tuesday 27th November
  • Tuesday 4th December
  • Tuesday 11th December

All take place at Burford House Garden Stores, Burford, Tenbury Wells, WR15 8HQ and are organised by Nick Champion.

 

druids1Druid Mistletoe Ceremony is on Saturday 1st December
This is organised by The Mistletoe Foundation who will be on the Burgage in Tenbury Wells for the Mistletoe Ceremony at 2pm as part of Tenbury Mistletoe Festival 2018.

The ceremony will honour the Mistletoe, male and female plants, and the harvests of the Teme Valley.  Participants (all welcome) are invited to meet at S.E.N.S.E (Temeside House, Teme St, Tenbury Wells, Worcestershire, WR15 8AA) at 1.15pm. The procession to the Burgage will begin at 1.45pm. Or you can join in at the Burgage from 2pm.

Other Mistletoe Festival Event information will be available soon – you can check the Tenbury Mistletoe Association website (showing last year’s events at present)  or their facebook page for updates.

Birdlime #2 – Sticky Bombs

The sticky mistletoe uses I mentioned last week – catching birds with mistletoe glue  – seem tame compared with some of the other activities associated with Birdlime. Again, whether it really was ever made from mistletoe may be debatable – but there are certainly strong traditions. You can even buy modern versions of it, and though I doubt there’s much mistletoe in them, the name does stick (no pun intended).

71LMMmgJ7KL._SL1500_Here, for example is Nuovo Vischio Marrone, a tube of glue from Italy.  The name translates as New Brown Mistletoe Glue, and is sometimes simply translated as ‘Birdlime’. It seems to be merely an everyday glue for card and paper, nothing like the sticky trapping birdlime it derives from.

Such ‘artificial’ birdlime, unrelated to the original, is quite a well-established concept.  One noted British manufacturer in the mid 20th century was a firm called Kay Brothers, based in Stockport, who produced a wide range of domestic chemicals including hand-cleaners, grease removers and metal polishes.  They made a version of birdlime in a tin, branded simply with their trademark K.

Manufacturing Sticky Bombs
Manufacturing Sticky Bombs

This played an odd, but significant, role in WW2 – when the concept of a ‘Sticky Bomb‘ to attack tanks was first discussed.  The idea was that if a soldier could get close to a tank he might be able to stick some concentrated high explosive to it – which would be activated a few seconds later after the tank had moved away. The explosives part took some research – and so did finding the right glue for the sticky part.

The story goes that birdlime was suggested, a tin was procured, but branded just with ‘K’ and Stockport. Inventor Stuart Macrae, working in ‘MD1’, one of the British secret gadget-making units, had to travel to Stockport to track down the firm and, having done so, recruited them to work on his sticky bomb project, developing a new glue specially for the sticky bombs. Macrae tells the story himself in his book Winston Churchill’s Toyshop (1971). The account in Wikipedia suggests that the bombs had a somewhat sticky (no pun intended) start, slow to catch on (ditto), but were successfully used in many wartime arenas.

And the concept certainly caught on in popular thinking – I was recently re-reading a book from my childhood, The Otterbury Incident by Cecil Day Lewis, and was reminded that the rival schoolboy gangs in the opening chapters use (pretend) Sticky Bombs in their war games.  Published in 1948, very soon after the war, this may reflect the ubiquity of the concept at the time.

It would seem that mistletoe glue might, ultimately, be behind the success of the anti-tank sticky bomb – which is somewhat sobering.


If you want to handle (and grow more) some of those sticky berries yourself, why not buy a Mistletoe Grow-Kit from the English Mistletoe Shop?  Details here: https://englishmistletoeshop.co.uk/live/

Mistletoe Kissing #1 – the good side

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!

Dean Cook reprising his role for a Daily Mail article (but this time with plastic mistletoe – yuck!)

Researching the two young actors is interesting – there are several media reports on the boy, Dean Cook, with a specific feature in the Guardian in 2014 and inclusion in a Daily Mail ‘famous poses’ feature in 2017 (they picture him taking the same pose now – see left). Dean is, depending on which reports you read, either still acting or running an upholstery firm, possibly both of course.

But who was the girl?

 

 


I’ll venture into ‘Mistletoe Kissing #2 – the Dark Side ‘ in a day or two…

 


Meanwhile, of course, if you want to find out more about mistletoe, try the Mistletoe Pages and the English Mistletoe Shop.

Birdlime #1 – Sticky Ends

Sticky excreted mistletoe berry pulp, and seeds, at a thrush toilet in a mistletoe-laden tree
Sticky excreted mistletoe berry pulp, and seeds, at a thrush toilet in a mistletoe-laden tree

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…


In the meantime, if you want to handle (and grow more) some of those sticky berries yourself, why not buy a Mistletoe Grow-Kit from the English Mistletoe Shop?  Details here: https://englishmistletoeshop.co.uk/live/