Odd mistletoe story of the month…

OakmistletoeadTimesSat6thDec2008blanked I've been getting a few queries recently about mistletoe on oak – and where to obtain it in Britain – and this ad, from last Saturday's Times, may be the reason. I'll say more about it below.  But first some background on mistletoe on oak…

The short answer to these queries about where to get oak mistletoe in Britain is that 'you don't'.  Mistletoe is incredibly rare on oak here, and doesn't grow well when it does occur. 

This simple state of affairs is complicated/confused by several factors, mostly relating to either its rarity, or confusion over its frequency…

In rarity terms mistletoe on oak evokes the druidic traditions of the sacred mistletoe on the sacred tree – referred to by Pliny in his writings about the British Druids.  This leads neatly on to beliefs – ancient and modern – in the 'special powers' of mistletoe on oak.  I won't go into those now.

In simple botanical terms the mistletoe on oak is the same as the mistletoe on any other host in Britain – and not really 'special' at all, just a curiosity.  The few documented mistletoe oaks in Britain today have very small mistletoe growths, showing that this is, in effect, a really poor host for the plant.  Indeed many of the 'British' mistletoe oaks are actually non-native oaks, more susceptible to mistletoe growths than the native varieties (more on that below).  Botanists (and others) guard the secrets of mistletoe oaks, and do not publicise their locations (though most are easy to find if you know how…).

The whole situation is confused by a naive belief by many that they have mistletoe on oaks in their local area – almost always based on incorrect tree identification (most turn out to be limes, horse chestnuts etc).  This view isn't helped by the regularity (abroad) of other mistletoe species on oaks in other countries.  So mistletoe on oak is fairly common in the USA but that's a different mistletoe and different oaks.  And there's a Central European mistletoe that likes oaks too – but it's not evergreen like our northern European mistletoe so it doesn't 'seem' right, and isn't the true mistletoe of legend.

And then there's the medicinal angle – where the German/Swiss institutes that make anthroposophic mistletoe medicines (for complementary cancer therapy) use our mistletoe species from a specific range of hosts, as they consider each host to impart a different biochemical contribution.  They actively encourage mistletoe on oaks to ensure they have an oak mistletoe element in their medicines.  They do this by finding susceptible oak varieties – ie varities more likely to grow mistletoe than others, and then actively cultivating it.  (i.e they grow 'ordinary' mistletoe on 'special' oaks, not the other way around).

So what is this ad about?  Short answer is I really don't know, though I think I know who the 'private gentleman' is.  It's not clear whether he wants material for propagation or simply to make into some medicinal brew etc.  But the price seems ridiculously high, and I can't see how he can be sure he won't be neatly ripped off with 'ordinary' mistletoe from a more common host.

If he really really wants oak mistletoe that badly he should be looking to the continent, where there is an organised cropping system, and/or if he really really wants to grow it, he should be thinking susceptible oak tree/grafts of susceptible oak tree limbs and simply using 'ordinary' mistletoe berries – as that's the way to do it.  There's plenty of advice on that sort of thing available if you have a legit cause and ask the right questions of the right people, here and abroad.  But that information would only be given out for good reason, not just for money.

It's an odd story, and seems to be a hammer to crack a nut. 

It may seem a little funny too – but it isn't harmless – I am really worried about possible theft and vandalism from our few mistletoe oaks that could result from this.  It doesn't seem a very responsible way to go about sourcing this material.