It’s that time again, again. With my first mistletoe talk of the season tomorrow (18th Oct) I’m dusting down the Mistletoe Machine and planning what to say, do and report on this season.
Current thoughts, for the blog this season, include:
Reviewing the state of the ‘crop’ (though I never really go along with this ‘crop’ concept – which implies someone actually tends it!)
Biodiversity news – reports on latest findings on mistletoe and conservation in the UK including…
a possible new UK mistletoe insect, albeit one that simply eats one of the existing mistletoe insects
new studies showing how UK mistletoe growths can influence (positively) the wider biodiversity around themselves
Plus corresponding news about other mistletoes worldwide – their insects, their conservation value etc.
A discussion about recent research on mistletoe’s interesting mitochondrial biology – specifically the lack of Complex 1, part of the respiration chain used by all multicellular organisms, except, er, mistletoe… Don’t be put off, this may be sub-cellular biology but it is, in discovery terms, fairly massive.
And, maybe, if that goes well, a review of recent research into mistletoe phylogeny – how mistletoe(s) have evolved.
Plus a series of tangential discussions about other plant parasites, particularly the Dodders and Toothworts and how they are, or might be, grown in gardens. Yes, I admit some are, visually, somewhat challenging but others are downright pretty parasites which deserve more appreciation
And, talking of growing in gardens, there will be updates on growing mistletoe itself (clue – don’t do what the gardening books say, even the RHS still spouts complete bol**cks on this, it really does make me despair!)
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).
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.
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 Incidentby 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.
Every year. EVERY year. The media, even the gardening media, peddle rubbishy old nonsensical myths about how to grow mistletoe. Yesterday BBC Radio 4 Gardener’s Question Time were telling people to make a hole in the bark, stick the seed in and, wait for it….. seal it in with Sealing Wax!!! An astonishing thing to suggest – not least because who has a stick of Sealing Wax handy these days?
Meanwhile Smallholder Magazine’s January issue is telling people to cut flaps in bark, stick the seeds under and bind it all up with hessian.
These are not unusual – gardening lore for mistletoe is full of these weird, mediaeval-sounding methods. Even the official RHS ‘Advice’ does so.
And then they say ‘only one in ten seeds germinate’ (RHS, Smallholder magazine) or that successfully growing mistletoe is the ‘Holy Grail’ of gardening (BBC GQT). In other words they think it is fiendishly difficult.
Well yes, if you follow their methods it is. As their methods will inhibit germination and kill the seeds.
Whereas, if you apply the tiniest piece of common sense and think about how mistletoe spreads naturally – by birds wiping or excreting seeds onto branches, whereupon they germinate and grow – you’ll realise that there’s no alchemy to this. The seeds just need to be put on a branch.
The seeds need light, need to penetrate bark their own way and need space to grow. None of which they get if you’ve buried them in an early grave inside the tree. The seeds just need to be put on a branch.
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!
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…
Two more grand old mistletoe men were lost to us in 2017 – Reg Farmer and Alec Wall – both of Tenbury Wells. I first met them both back in 2003, or maybe 2004, I can’t recall exactly. They were hoping to promote Tenbury Wells’ mistletoe heritage at a time when it seemed that the mistletoe auctions were soon to cease. Others involved were Stan Yapp (the ‘Mistletoe King’, who died in 2013 aged 80) and local author Jen Green (still with us as far as I’m aware!). They persuaded me to join their campaign and the five of us formed a business partnership – Tenbury English Mistletoe Enterprise, or TEME for short.
Reg, a farmer by profession as well as by name, died in August, aged 88, after a remarkable career in local government and politics, beginning in 1961 on Lindridge Parish Council and only finishing in 2011, during which he spent many years representing his area at District and County level, twice as Chair of Malvern Hills District Council and also their first and only honorary Alderman. Alec, a former police detective who had retired to the area to farm at Stoke Bliss, died in September, aged 82. He too had taken an active role in local politics, also serving several stints as a local councillor.
TEME’s aims were to keep Tenbury’s mistletoe trading tradition alive through whatever trade and promotions we could think up. And we really thought the auctions would cease (the auction site was being sold and the auctioneers who ran it were moving out of town) .
On the promotional side we created the Tenbury Wells Mistletoe Festival, along with National Mistletoe Day and the Mistletoe Queen, all of which seem like long-established fixtures now. And we (mainly me actually) encouraged the druid Mistletoe Foundation to bring their mistletoe ceremony to town each year – this is also now an established fixture.
On the trading side we launched Britain’s first online mail-order mistletoe business, sending Tenbury mistletoe all over the country (and beyond!) and launching a range of mistletoe-related products including Grow-Your-Own Kits. All of this was surprisingly successful – not particularly remunerative in financial terms but immensely satisfying. And whilst TEME disbanded some years ago our online mistletoe trading concept lives on through many other similar sites – which I like to think were inspired by us.
Meanwhile, to our slight surprise but immense relief the auctions carried on, albeit at an out-of-town site, run by Nick Champion (who had been employed at the old auction yard) who set up by himself and keeps the mistletoe auctions going (to the present day).
That TEME team was a mixed bunch though – Stan was an old-fashioned farmer and mistletoe trader, Jen was primarily promotional, utilising her substantial experience in media and marketing work. Alec was the practical man, with a police and agricultural background, running all the admin (considerable for the online business), Reg, with huge local agricultural and political knowledge, was the contacts and ideas man. I, by far the youngest, brought technical mistletoe knowledge, online know-how and media and promotional experience from many years in environmental media work.
Despite, or possibly because of, this breadth of background and experience it wasn’t always sweetness and light within TEME – there were a few falling-outs now and then! And sometimes with the conservative Alec and Reg it was best (for me) to avoid mentioning politics (though I do still miss some of the arguments!). But I think TEME’s legacy is secure – the Mistletoe Festival is now well-established and mistletoe trading continues to thrive – both at the auctions (for which we can thank Nick Champion rather than TEME – though we did substantially help their promotion!) and via the various online trading companies selling direct to the public, probably inspired by TEME and most of which are still, directly or indirectly, associated with Tenbury.
So thanks Reg, Alec and Stan – for your mistletoe legacy. It was fun too.
And, if you want to try to grow your own mistletoe, Grow-Kits inspired and developed from the original ones I designed for TEME are available from the English Mistletoe Shop: