Plenty of stuff yet to come for the Mistletoe Diary this year – though I’m a bit behind schedule.
Time for some light relief from San Francisco, where “interactive artists” (what does that actually mean?) George Zisiadis and Mustafa Khan have made a Mistletoe Drone out of a Parrot AR.Drone (pictured in unaltered form on the right).
They wrapped their drone in tinsel and mistletoe and have taken it to Union Square in San Francisco to buzz unsuspecting couples.
Zisiadis is quoted as saying
“All my work is about playfully re-imagining the world around us. Drones have been causing all sorts of paranoia lately and I wanted to reframe them from being something scary and ominous to being fun and human. It’s not about the technology, its about how we use it.”
“Buy British!” That slogan doesn’t have the same ring about it these days, when so many products are imported, but surely mistletoe is one of those few that we could, in theory, realistically aspire to buy locally. There are regular calls each year to make sure your mistletoe is British, backed up with the idea that this will sustain our native mistletoe industry. But is this at all realistic?
There is no labelling scheme – so, frankly, most florists/greengrocers won’t have a clue where their mistletoe came from. The only significant home-grown supply is from mistletoe-filled orchards in the SW midlands of England – and those orchards are on the decline. And, despite media-hype, we have relied on mistletoe imports from mainland Europe since at least the late 19th century.
Are those imports a problem? Not as far as I can tell. Up until the 1960s or so, when imports still came via traditional means, it was normal for the British media to report on the import figures – with tonnages of mistletoe imports reported as a ‘good thing’ and part of the Christmas seasonal events. Since the 1990s, when worries about home-grown mistletoe supplies began, the opposite line has been taken – with the media implying that imports are somehow bad, and a ‘new’ phenomenon.
Reports from the late 19th century describe ships with deckfuls of mistletoe coming over from France – there’s a Worcestershire example on the left. And when the French government passed a law obliging their orchard owners to control mistletoe there was understandable angst here in Britain (see the 1895 story on the right)
Press photos from the 1920s, 30s and 50s feature Normandy farmers cutting mistletoe for export to Britain. It was an accepted, and expected, part of the seasonal news.
The import trade continues, though it’s not so well reported these days, perhaps because there is so little regulation on cross-border trade now, particularly within the EU. This makes it much less obvious.
But should we be worried by it – do mistletoe imports threaten our home-grown mistletoe trade and harvest? I suspect there is no problem – indeed the recent trend to publicly despair of imports is probably ensuring the home-grown trade is doing better than ever, especially with the new UK-branded mail-order retailers set up on the internet (which are the only effort at a ‘Terroir‘ system we have for mistletoe).
The real problem is sustainability – and that applies to both the home-grown and imported mistletoe. Most mistletoe, wherever it is harvested, comes from old-style traditional apple orchards and those are just as threatened in mainland Europe as they are in the UK!
When Mr Bieber’s ‘Mistletoe‘ song charted a couple of years I despaired. It was worse than Biff Pilchard’s ‘Mistletoe and Wine‘ (and it messed up every search engine’s responses to the word ‘mistletoe’ for ever!).
News reports this week reveal that Pilchard’s version of Mistletoe and Wine is an over-sentimentalised version of a more politically-motivated original. And the original was part of a 1987 musical version of A Little Match Girl. You can watch a version of that here.
This information is some comfort I suppose. But it did make me wonder – would we ever get a decent mistletoe-themed song at Christmas?
“Father Christmas Do Not Touch Me“. (actually briefly the A-side as they swapped it round in November 1974, just to confuse us).
A classic – but probably politically-unacceptable due to its innuendo and improper suggestiveness these days. If you can’t remember it, here it is….
Confessions of a teenager:I remember discussing the song (and singing it too) at the tender age of 13 and 3 quarters, with my good friend Julian Goodwin (now a respectable member of staff at the School of Engineering & Physical Sciences at Heriot-Watt University – complete with slightly scary picture).
Or how too much mistletoe will suck your tree dry (and stop it fixing carbon too)…
It’s the last weekend of mistletoe management and harvest work before Christmas and I’ve been reviewing the orchards we’ve worked in this season. All have been over-neglected, most of the apple trees are in dire need of proper management and all have had far too much mistletoe on them – which is, of course, why we were in them…
Too much mistletoe in a small tree can be bad news, stressing the tree and eventually contributing to its death. And, sure enough, in all of the orchards we’ve worked in recently there have been some newly deceased, but still standing, trees – all with lots of (equally dead) mistletoe. Which makes what we are doing – cutting out excess mistletoe, both male and female plants, regardless of their marketability – all the more important. We don’t want to lose any more of them. I’ve covered management issues here before – and am still looking for your management experiences on the survey at www.british.mistletoe.org.uk
But exactly how does mistletoe stress the tree? Well, one simple example is transpiration – the term used for the passage of water and gases through a plant. Mistletoes – including our European mistletoe Viscum album – transpire more freely than the host tree, forcing a passage of water through the tree’s vascular system from the roots faster than the tree wants to.
This raises interesting issues for the tree in winter, when most would, as most are deciduous, be naturally leafless and therefore not transpiring at all. But the parasitic mistletoe is evergreen – forcing ongoing transpiration throughout the year. And summertime is a problem too – the mistletoe’s leaves transpire faster than the host’s leaves – and so in dry summers the tree will become water-stressed much more quickly if it has lots of mistletoe on it.
There are relatively few studies of exactly how this phenomenon works for Viscum album on apple trees despite it being generally accepted as a major issue. But experimental studies from other host trees with Viscum album certainly support the idea.
Most research has, curiously, been on Pine hosts. Which might sound a little odd to most people – as our Viscum album is usually only seen on deciduous hosts. But there are subspecies of this mistletoe that will grow on evergreens, and one of them, Viscum album subspecies austriacum is a common feature on pines in some parts of Europe.
Recent papers from Spain (Sangüesa-Barreda, Linares and Camarero 2013) and from Switzerland (Zweifel, Bangerter, Rigling and Sterck 2012) have documented the transpiration impacts of this mistletoe – and they confirm that this is a significant problem.
The Swiss study showed that the mistletoe’s stomata – the adjustable pores that all plants have on their leaves to regulate water and gas exchange – were ‘barely regulated’ and so water loss through the mistletoe leaves was substantial. In an effort to compensate for this water ‘leak’ the infested pine trees closed their own stomata. This helped reduce water loss, but not sufficiently enough – and it had the side effect of reducing carbon dioxide assimilation – a gas the tree needs to photosynthesise and grow. CO2 enters the leaves through the stomata – so closed stomata reduce CO2 uptake.
This is, of course, a double whammy for the pine – reduced water and reduced CO2 supplies – so a real problem for the tree, especially in dry periods. The effect is only serious if there is substantial mistletoe growth – but as mistletoe is spreading more rapidly in the area studied the conclusion is that pine mortality will increase in the area, due to mistletoe spread.
The Spanish study looked at the relationship between mistletoe infestation, intrinsic water use efficiency (iWUE) and the increased atmospheric concentrations of CO2. In theory, because higher CO2 levels mean stomata do not need to open so much, the impacts of closure of host stomata due to mistletoe stress could be offset by there being more CO2 anyway. The study confirmed, like the Swiss one, that mistletoe infestation increased drought-stress in infected trees, but also concluded that ‘rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations cannot compensate for the impacts of drought and mistletoe on tree growth’. Which, to be frank, isn’t surprising.
The overall point of reporting all this? To stress that too much mistletoe, whatever the host, will affect the host’s water and gas exchange, and not in a positive way! Management is needed – especially in smaller hosts like apples.
That shouldn’t put people off growing mistletoe of course –a few growths are unlikely to be a problem. And to reach problem levels your mistletoe growths will need to have been growing for several decades. But if your apple tree looks like these (see right) – you need to do some remedial management – and soon!
(PS There’s a video with some impressively overgrown apple trees in the video on this page... and I’m in it too…)
Refs for those who want to know more….
Roman Zweifel, Sara Bangerter, Andreas Rigling and Frank J. Sterck 2012 Pine and mistletoes: how to live with a leak in the water flow and storage system? Journal of Experimental Botany, Vol. 63, No. 7, pp. 2565–2578, 2012
Gabriel Sangüesa-Barreda, Juan Carlos Linares, J. Julio Camarero 2013 Drought and mistletoe reduce growth and water-use efficiency of Scots pine Forest Ecology and Management 296 (2013) 64–73
Pagans, Wiccans, Druids and Don’t-Knows assembled yesterday for a reassuring mistletoe ceremony in the Severn Vale. The gods (you decide which ones) were kind to us – the weather was beautiful, and only slightly chilly.
I’m posting a few pics of the preparations here. There are none of the actual ceremony (as we were all taking part). Thanks to Keith for hosting it and Caz for organising it.
An 11-year old girl selling mistletoe in Portland (the one in Oregon, not the one in Dorset) may have succeeded in changing the rules at the city’s Saturday Market. Last weekend, after she set up a stall selling mistletoe for $4 a bunch (to raise money for her dental braces) she was told she had to stop, as she hadn’t paid for a stall licence.
Madison Root and her family thought her small operation would be fine, as there are many unlicensed buskers and beggars (‘panhandlers’ in local parlance) active in the market area. But she was told that asking a price, rather than relying on goodwill wasn’t allowed – she could raise money by begging but not from sales!
The resulting publicity led to huge interest in her story, many hundreds of orders, and provision of an alternative sales pitch by a Radio Station. And she’s already raised most of what she needs before evening trying the market pitch again. This video explains in more detail.
Meanwhile the municipal authorities have had to go on the defensive, and are suggesting they might alter the rules to be more flexible in future.
Madison is quoting as saying “It’s not about mistletoe. It’s not about me being kicked out. It’s about all of us, It’s about society accepting begging more than hard work and to set a goal for ourselves.”
But I reckon it’s all about the mistletoe really – which is, after all, a plant species* that symbolises peace, friendship and healing – and isn’t that what she’s achieving?
If you’re in North America you can buy Madison’s mistletoe direct from her website http://madisonsmistletoe.com/ I think she might raise rather more than she expected to…
(*although, of course, Madison’s mistletoe isn’t the original mistletoe species of peace, friendship and healing, as her’s is a North American mistletoe species – but I think we can let that point pass…)
. Commercial break:
But if you’re in the UK you can get the original mistletoe of legend from The English Mistletoe Shop – as well as Grow-Kits, Grow-Kit Gift Cards, Books etc.
The Norse God Loki is, usually, considered a major mischief maker, often evil, and the primary baddie in mistletoe-themed slaying of his fellow-god Baldr.
But he is also often portrayed as helpful and useful, though somewhat mischievous, so what is the truth (can you have a truth about a mythical god?).
The Baldr story is fairly damning: Baldr, whose death has been foretold, has been given special protection by his mother (Frigg) who has made all animals, birds and all plants that grow in the soil swear never to harm him.
His fellow gods then amuse themselves by attacking him with weapons that cannot hurt him – until Loki makes a weapon from mistletoe. Mistletoe, which does not grow in soil, did not take the vow, and so can kill Baldr. That’s bad enough, but Loki makes it worse by persuading Hod, Baldr’s blind brother, to innocently make the fatal blow with the mistletoe-tipped weapon, ensuring that Hod gets the blame for Baldr’s death, at least initially.
Many accounts claim that this was Loki’s last act – his ultimate folly, and that he was imprisoned as a result.
But what of his career before this? What did Loki do, and was he good, bad or a bit of both? If you research the details online you’re likely to get very confused – as there are so many differing versions, and traditions, relating to Loki and his fellow gods. Even Wikipedia, normally such a reassuring source for information, has an instantly confusing entry for him – here’s the first paragraph:
Lots of stuff to think about there, and that’s just the first para!
If you prefer your villains a little less complicated you might try assessing Loki via the Marvel Comics version of him – where he is portrayed as an arch-enemy of Thor, and was even voted the 8th Greatest Comic Book Villain of All Time in an Imagine Games Network poll. And he is a primary baddie in the recent Avengers and Thor: The Dark Worldfilms.
But the older traditions are more interesting than these new comic book-based movies. So what is available, in modern literature, on those traditions? Well, the most interesting-looking offering is not yet published – and we’ll have to wait until after Christmas to read it.
This tells the story of Loki in the first person, describing him as – “the Light-Bringer, the misunderstood, the elusive, the handsome and modest hero” – which certainly sounds intriguing!
Here’s an extract where Loki and Thor, travelling together in disguise, reveal their identities…
Well, a good time was had by all, if you enjoy that kind of thing. We ate, we slept, and in the morning Thor gathered up all the bones from the feast of the previous night and prepared for a breakfast of bread and bone marrow. But on investigating the discarded bones, he saw that a thighbone had already been split, and knew someone had disobeyed.
“What did I tell you not to do?” he said, revealing his true Aspect.
Thialfi opened his eyes very wide. “Wow. Oh, wow. You’re Thor,” he said.
“Yes I know that,” said Thor.
“I knew it!” said Thialfi. “I mean, the Thor. The Thunderer. The thunder god.”
“Yes,” said Thor. “And if you recall -”
“Oh, wow,” said Thialfi. “I love your work. That time you dressed up as a bride -”
“Don’t mention that!” said Roskva.
“Oh. Well, the time you rescued Idun from the Ice People, and -”
“Actually, that was me,” I said.
Roskva’s doe eyes opened wide. “Oh, my gods, you’re Loki,” she said. “You’re absolutely my favourite of all the gods in Asgard. Thialfi, you dope, this is Loki. Loki, the Trickster in person. Thor and Loki, in our house, and we never even suspected !”
“Whatever,” said Thor, still irate. “You disobeyed my specific command. You all deserve to pay with your lives.”
I pointed out that killing his loyal fans would hardly help his public image. By then all the family were bowing, scraping and I-am-not-worthy-ing as if they’d never seen a celebrity before. I was frankly revolted, but it seemed to have an effect on Thor.
“All right, all right. I’ll let it pass.”
Thialfi and Roskva jumped for joy. Roskva brought out a little pink notebook and a stick of charcoal and asked me to write my name inside. Thialfi wanted to feel Thor’s arms, to see if they were as thick as they looked.
“So, how do you get to be a god?” said the father of the family. “Is it something that can be taught? Or is it something you’re born with? Because my son’s always saying that he wants to be a god someday, but I don’t know if there’s a career in it. Not like there is in farming.”
Thor assured him that there was.
“So, did you train?” said Thialfi. “Or were you, like, recruited?”
Well, I have to admit I don’t actually know – as I wasn’t there. Which is unusual for me, as I have been to every Mistletoe Festival weekend since it was established. But I can’t always be there and I had mistletoe commitments elsewhere this year. This did mean I could actually attend my own town’s Christmas lights and procession event for a change – this tends to coincide with Tenbury. That went well – though there was no mistletoe involved… And on National Mistletoe Day I was delivering mistletoe for a wedding instead of attending the druid ceremony.
So how was it at Tenbury? Well information online so far is very sparse! Perhaps if I wanted to know perhaps I should have been there!
The Mistletoe Foundation report (on their facebook page) that “Honouring all done and it was a beautiful magical time shared by so many people . Mistletoe blessings to all”. So it sounds as if everything went well at the druid ceremony. But there are no news reports or blogs covering the Saturday events yet – come on Tenbury – where’s the News!!.
EDITED AT 18.28 TO ADD:
AN UPDATE ON THE DRUID CEREMONY FROM LEONORE NEWSON:
“The Druid ceremony went very well. Just a simple ceremony attended by about 50 people, not all them Druid. The healing properties of the mistletoe was sent around the world via the spirit of the Rover Teme. This ceremony was independent of the Mistletoe Foundation who have pulled back from this.”
Last Tuesday’s mistletoe auctions in Tenbury included 750 lots of raw mistletoe or holly (not including wreaths and Christmas trees) – but probably at least half of those were holly, not mistletoe. It would be interesting to see the stats for the proportion of holly:mistletoe over the last few years. My impression is that there is proportionally more holly than there used to be but whether that’s a decrease in mistletoe or just an increase in holly sold I don’t know.
Mistletoe prices were fairly good – averaging £2 per kg for good quality material (good white berries and intact green leaves) but only 50p per kg for lower quality stock (that’s the mistletoe with poor berries, tatty leaves, and a yellowy complexion). In practice that means a 10kg bundle/lot of mistletoe cost £20 if good quality or £5 if not.
The second auction is today – it will be interesting to see if prices differ – they often do for the second one…
A comment on pricing: Do note that the prices above are, of course, wholesale prices of ‘raw’ mistletoe – and bear little resemblance to the retail price. The retail price is largely a reflection of the costs and labour that goes into ‘processing’ the mistletoe after buying it wholesale – sorting it, cutting out the waste (which is often most of it – mistletoe has an awful lot of stem, and for every perfectly-pretty sprig there are usually numerous unsaleable ones!), trimming it to suit whatever market you’re selling to, and then packaging it (and in some cases shipping it). So when you buy mistletoe from a shop the price is mostly covering post-harvest and post-wholesale processing.
Yesterday’s blog about giant mistletoes featured the amazing Western Australian Christmas Tree – a mistletoe that grows in the ground by parasitising the host’s roots, not the branches.
And today another Australian mistletoe story caught my eye – though this time because there’s a bit of mistletoe misunderstanding in it. It’s the first of these (mistletoe misunderstandings) I’ve featured for the 2013 season, though it probably won’t be the last, judging by previous years!
The story is from Macarthur Chronicle, a newspaper in Campbelltown, which is a town in New South Wales, just south-west of Sydney. In their 19th Nov issue, they reported that Councillor Rudi Kolkman was highlighting a problem (in his opinion) with local mistletoe infestation. He was suggesting control is needed – which is, in itself, fair enough if indeed there is excess mistletoe. Many mistletoe species can become a problem and some Australian mistletoes have form for this (for example see the story I covered here in December 2012, though do note that this emphasises mistletoe’s positive side too)
So what was the mistletoe misinformation? Well, clearly Councillor Kolkman doesn’t know much about plants! He suggested the parasitic nature of the local mistletoe makes it unlike the festive variety (when actually it makes it exactly like it!). And then goes on to claim that it is spread by ‘spores’ that are ‘carried on the wind’ and so could infect the whole neighbourhood very quickly. But, most mistletoe seeds (not spores, mistletoe is a highly evolved higher plant and most definitely grows from seeds!) are spread by birds. Which means spread can be to the whole neighbourhood, but it will be one seed at a time and therefore won’t be rapid. Australia even has a special Mistletoe Bird. What does he think this does with mistletoe? Kiss under it?
But, to be fair to Councillor Kolkman, he may be right that local mistletoe needs control (though probably only in urban areas, not in the wider environment where it will be an important part of the ecosystem). But he doesn’t help his case with scaremongering lines about wind-blown spores!
In the 26th Nov issue of the newspaper there is a letter responding to his concerns. The letter writer, Lenka Dostal, says “I have never laughed as much as I have in the evening when I read your article on mistletoe” before going on to describe Kolkman’s errors.
I’m not quite sure why Lenka thinks it was quite so funny (unless everything else is incredibly serious in Campbelltown). But maybe this is one of those over the top responses that just reflect the Australian way? After all Aussies do have a bit of a reputation, certainly here in the UK, for being outspoken…
Which reminds me about, er, cricket
Digressing briefly to cricket, that outspoken tendency has been rather obvious in the recent Aussie comments on the current Ashes series where the Aussies have been ‘sledging’ members of the England team. One of the recipients, Jonathan Trott, has just been signed off with stress though that may, of course, be nothing to do with the sledging…
But it can’t have helped. And we Jonathans have to stick together*!! So I have a mistletoe-themed proposal to help sort the whole sledging problem once and for all.
The next stage of the series, the 2nd Test, will start at Adelaide on 5th December. And what’s Adelaide famous for? Mistletoe! Well, it should be famous for it. There was last year’s announcement from the University of Adelaide about their research on mistletoe in cancer therapy – but that was using European mistletoe extracts and that’s not what I’m thinking of. In mistletoe circles the area is best-known for its mistletoe conservation/management work – particularly with Box Mistletoe (Amyema miquelii). They even have a Mistletoe Action Group in the Clare and Gilbert Valleys area. Don’t believe me? Read this.
So… before the 2nd Test why don’t the Australian and England teams just go local, get in with the Adelaide Mistletoe Action Group, find some Box Mistletoe (an oddly apt name for a mistletoe in cricket…!) and just kiss and make up for the Christmas season? (or maybe just a group-hug?)
Maybe I’ll drop a line to Aggers (another Jonathan) to see what he thinks.
They even claim that the 12-foot-long by eight-foot-wide mistletoe (pictured right) hanging from their entrance is recognised in the Guinness of Records as the world’s largest.
And they should know something about large there – apparently the hotel occupies an entire city block. And they’ve had that giant mistletoe for 2 years now.
But lots of other places have claimed to have giant and largest mistletoe in recent years. I’ve covered a few in this blog over the years – including the giant steel mistletoe at RHS Harlow Carr Gardens in 2008 and the giant mistletoe that hung at Heathrow Terminal 5 in 2009 (pic on left). There’s a video of that one at the bottom of this blog entry.
And that’s just a few. Some of them may even be the same giant mistletoe, just doing the rounds of big corporate marketing departments.
But there’s something wrong with all these giant mistletoes – and you’ve probably guessed it already. The clue is in the wording given by the Mission Inn Hotel – who say it is “the world’s largest man-made mistletoe”.
They are all, of course, complete fakes You can’t have a ‘man-made mistletoe’ – you can only have a man-made modelof some mistletoe…. They’re not actual mistletoe! Of course not – they’re just bits of plastic and metal dreamt up by marketing teams. They’re not really about botanical traditions – but everything to do with (rather naff) commerce.
Does this matter? Well yes, it does, or should do. Kissing under mistletoe is a custom celebrating the peculiarity and properties of the plant – and so kissing under a bolted together collection of green and white painted hardware is insulting that tradition, and the plant.
Maybe there is a real largest mistletoe out there somewhere? Many mistletoe species do grow quite large – our own Viscum album species can reach several feet across, maybe a metre or two total for large plants. But it, like most other mistletoes, is usually limited by strength or health of the host branch, with that branch eventually falling or failing. Often it doesn’t get to that stage, as the mistletoe itself is fragile with chunks of growth breaking off in high winds, which perhaps provides a sort of fail-safe mechanism for both mistletoe and host branch.
So could a real mistletoe get very large if it wasn’t growing on a branch? Maybe.
And are there any that don’t grow on branches? Yes! A few mistletoes develop from the host root system – so they actually look as they grow out of the ground, like a conventional plant.
Do these grow large? Well, they are known as theTree Mistletoes.so, yes, fairly large.
The best-known one, an Australian species, is called Nuytsia floribunda, but its common name is, wait for it… the Western Australian Christmas Tree (yes, really, because it flowers at Christmas!)
So, my nomination for the largest mistletoe, and the one with the best name for Christmas, is Nuytsia floribunda, It is so big you don’t even have to hang it up – just walk under it.
And I reckon it puts all those promotional giant plastic and metal monstrosities in the shade.