Jonathan's Mistletoe Diary

November 20, 2014

Mistletoe, Good Luck and War

Filed under: Current Affairs,Food and Drink,Mistletoe,Science,Travel — Jonathan Briggs @ 3:42 pm
A typical mistletoe-themed French New Year card

A typical mistletoe-themed French New Year card

Earlier this month I contributed to a local WW1 exhibition with some documents and correspondence relating to my Great Uncle Clifford, who died in July 1918 as a Prisoner of War. He shipped to France on 2nd April and was immediately sent to serve in the trenches but on 27th May, after just 8 weeks at war, he was captured. Several official ‘I am a Prisoner of War’ postcards were sent home and a longer letter written (but never sent). He died from ‘cardiac weakness’ in July – but neither the army nor his family got this news until January 1919. My grandmother, his sister, had been hopefully meeting the troop trains arriving home ever since the Armistice in November 1918 – but her brother had been dead for months. His last letter was in his effects.

What has this tragic story got to do with mistletoe? Nothing directly. But it has reminded me of the use of mistletoe as a good luck motif – particularly in that war. Mistletoe was once strongly associated with luck – and many of the older traditions and legends can be interpreted as suggesting it has some sort of protective role. The popular kissing custom has, today, rather eclipsed many of these older traditions – but 100 years ago more customs may have still thrived. The location of the fighting in northern France and Belgium may have helped as French-speaking areas, even today, still hold on to the custom of mistletoe for luck – a ‘Porte Bonheur’.

Another mistletoe-themed French New Years card

Another mistletoe-themed French New Years card

This tradition was, by the time of WW1, often manifested in France through pictorial postcards, often celebrating the New Year – and also with art nouveau style objets d’art (see some here) often embellished with the phrase ‘au gui l’an neuf’ – mistletoe for the New Year, effectively wishing the recipient a lucky and successful New Year.

During the war a variant of these cards, in the form of the embroidered so-called ‘silk’ postcards, were often used. Such silk cards were a popular item to post home from the front and many with mistletoe imagery, linked to some good luck message, survive.

Postcard home, locally made in France, depicting mistletoe and with a Good Luck message

Postcard home, locally made in France, depicting mistletoe and with a Good Luck message

Here’s one sold on ebay this week. Now, whether the mistletoe imagery was chosen by the British tommy for good luck – or whether the local producers (these were all made in France) simply made them to reflect their own local custom of mistletoe and luck is not known. It could be either, or both.

But I like to think it was both – and that the man in the trenches didn’t just associate mistletoe with kissing – instead seeing it as a luck symbol too.

I’ll finish with this picture of three WW1 British soldiers just about to celebrate Christmas. They are all wearing mistletoe in their hats – and it is perfectly placed for kissing. But, as there was, one assumes, no-one appealing enough to want to kiss, perhaps that mistletoe was actually being worn for luck.

Unconvinced? Just look (like they are) at the chicken – which possesses no mistletoe and is, I confidently predict, now completely out of luck…

Three soldiers and a chicken...

Three soldiers and a chicken…


Want to know more about mistletoe? Visit the Mistletoe Directory page for links to mistletoe information, and to sites where you can buy grow-kits, books and cards…

November 11, 2014

Mistletoe website, auction and survey news

Filed under: Biodiversity,Current Affairs,Mistletoe,Orchard,Science,Travel — Jonathan Briggs @ 9:00 pm

Running late on so many mistletoe matters this season. And hardly had time for blog updates. So here are a few bits and pieces of info, just to get things moving and answer some questions:

Mistletoe crop 2014 – looking good, lots of berries. And, for all those journos who insist on writing silly stories about a berry glut (or shortage, if doom’n’gloom is your forte) being due to a hot/cold, dry/wet, winter/spring/summer/autumn (take a random combo - most journalists do), there is NO definitive cause. So please don’t try to find/invent one. The berries are formed after pollination in early spring, from flower buds formed slowly over the previous summer. Which makes the flower bud formation to mature berry process nearly two years long – and there’s no point in looking to credit one particular season. And no, they won’t all be eaten by the birds before Christmas either (they never are – mistletoe’s not like holly or other conventional berried plants).

Tenbury Mistletoe Auctions 2014 – dates are Tuesdays 25th November, 2nd December and 9th December. And there’s a change of venue. This season they will be at Burford House Garden Store, Burford, Tenbury Wells, WR15 8HQ. Details, as usual, from Nick Champion. Buying or selling? Check out Nick’s guides here – Buying, Selling

The websites – several are being re-vamped this season (and it’s taking up a lot of my time!) to make sure all are ‘responsive’ site designs, working on tablets and phones as well as on desktop and laptop computers. The latest to get the treatment is the home index page at Check out the new design here.

Mistletoe Surveys – the Mistletoe League project – a group of public participation surveys looking into how mistletoe is managed on fruit trees and whether there are fruit varieties more susceptible or resistant to mistletoe – is being re-launched this month. This is also taking up a lot of my time – but there should be some progress to report soon….

Commercial break - the English Mistletoe Shop have just launched a new Grow-Kit website, dedicated to just the mistletoe grow-kits. Aimed particularly at gardeners, though suitable for all of course. Visit it here – it is, of course, a fully ‘responsive’ design.

October 25, 2014

New season mistletoe – loaded with berries

Filed under: Biodiversity,Current Affairs,Mistletoe,Orchard,Science — Jonathan Briggs @ 7:52 am
Mistletoe, late October 2014. Loadsa berries, and white already

Mistletoe, late October 2014. Loadsa berries, and white already

New season mistletoe looking good. Lots of berries – again… We seem to have several good berry seasons in a row. This year they’re even turning white early – with some almost fully white (though not yet translucent) already. That fits with other fruiting trends this season – many other plants’ fruits and berries ripened early too.

The mistletoe berries aren’t all green though – plants still in shade still have solidly green berries. Our biggest garden mistletoe is one of those, and is steadfastly refusing to turn white – yet. But the shade is rapidly vanishing, as host tree leaf-fall has accelerated in the last week and is exposing more and more mistletoe.

The deciduous mistletoe Loranthus europeaus, native to central southern Europe. Not obvious in winter!

The deciduous mistletoe Loranthus europeaus, native to central southern Europe. Not obvious in winter!

That sudden ‘exposure’ at this time of year is one of our mistletoe’s distinctive features – contributing to its role in legend and tradition as a symbol of ongoing life. The tree may look ‘dead’ as it loses more and more leaves, but the evergreen mistletoe, newly exposed, represents ongoing green life.

Not all mistletoes are like this of course – I was reminded in a discussion yesterday about the European Oak Mistletoe, Loranthus europaeus, being deciduous, and therefore NOT obvious in winter. Here’s a picture I took a few years ago of the only known specimen in Britain (in Kew Gardens). Can you spot which is mistletoe and which is tree? A leafless mistletoe just becomes another clump of branches. So it’s a good thing ours is evergreen – otherwise we might not have all those old traditions

Marketing promo’s taking advantage of those traditions are, as usual, coming in thick and fast now. Here’s one (my ‘mistletoe’ book of the week) for this week, brought to my attention in a newspaper (The Torygraph) promotion:

‘Mistletoe’ Book of the Week for w/e 25th October is…
…the paperback edition of Kate Mosse’s The Mistletoe Bride and  Other Haunting Tales . I’ve chosen it not because it’s particularly mistletoey (it isn’t, apart from the title story, and that’s not, really, very mistleotoey).

Its place here is really because the cover design earns the first mistletoe graphic thumbs-down of the season.

Whatever is that green stuff on that branch? If it’s supposed to be mistletoe the artist (and the art commissioning editor at Orion) have clearly never seen, or even bothered to look up, mistletoe. It looks like some sort of creeper, a day or so after herbicide treatment.

It’s so unlike mistletoe it’s a strong contender for the Naff Depiction of Mistletoe Award for 2014. But nominations are still open, so worse may yet appear.

October 6, 2014

Oh no, it’s mistletoe season again!

Filed under: Biodiversity,Current Affairs,Mistletoe,Religion,Science — Jonathan Briggs @ 11:47 pm

Mistletoe season is looming ever larger. Again. And despite it happening this time every year, I do feel it’s taken me a little by surprise this season. Lots still to do and to plan. Including reporting on current mistletoe matters here.

This season I’m planning to;

Mistletoe Seedlings - the results from some of my in vitro experiments earlier this year - more about these soon

Mistletoe Seedlings – the results from some of my in vitro experiments earlier this year – more about these soon

  • re-launch the Mistletoe League project, making a clearer distinction between the management survey and the fruit varietal preference survey (if you don’t know what that’s all about, visit More on this in November
  • review the use of drones in mistletoe survey work (yes, really)
  • discuss seedling survival – how long can a mistletoe seedling survive without connecting to the host?
  • ponder on seed, and seedling survival without light – to stress that you must never keep your mistletoe seeds in the dark (‘cos if you do, they’ll die)
  • re-visit a close encounter with parasitic plants when I was 14 – and realise, with hindsight, that the event has a lot to answer for
  • list, and discuss, mistletoe and mistletoe-related events this season
  • announce some mistletoe book news (I hope…)
  • think on mistletoe imagery at Christmas – and current trends in mistletoe designs

And lots of other mistletoey stuff, as it arises. All of it, obviously, presented in the best possible taste (I’ll keep the references to the ‘sperm of the gods’ to a minimum).

That’s all for now – I’ll be back blogging properly from next week.

EMShopThe English Mistletoe Shop is open again this season, though this year we are concentrating more on grow-kits rather than mistletoe itself. There’ll be more news on that soon.

May 12, 2014

Mistletoe problems in western orchards – getting worse?

Filed under: Biodiversity,Mistletoe,Orchard,Science,Uncategorized — Jonathan Briggs @ 11:23 am
A snapshot graphic from one of the Mistletoe League Surveys.

A snapshot graphic from one of the Mistletoe League Surveys.

The issue of ‘too much mistletoe’ has been on my mind again recently – helped along by email correspondence from Gillian Bulmer, who owns orchards at Little Breinton, Hereford and by a recent letter to the Hereford Times by Chris Fairs, formerly of Bulmers cider and an expert on orchard tree management.

The issue is one I’ve raised many times before – though it is often difficult to get the concept across, especially to the media, who are usually far more interested in stories about mistletoe rarity, not abundance. Even the conservation lobby seem to find it hard to grasp sometimes. Very odd.

Yes, mistletoe is rare across much of the country, and yes, mistletoe is good for biodiversity, supporting several other species. And yes it is a traditional plant to grow, with much cultural significance. So, for all those reasons, it is a GOOD plant to have, and even encourage, in areas where naturally rare.

BUT here in its core climatic area (Herefs, Worcs, Gloucs (Severn Vale), Gwent (borders) and Somerset) it grows in huge abundance. And where it is in neglected apple orchards (a favourite habitat and host) it will run amok, taking over each branch of the tree.

General mistletoe management in many older orchards has now ceased, or is much reduced, with often only some fairly random harvesting for Christmas. That harvesting tends to only take some of the berried female plants anyway, so it usually leaves well over half (the male plants and remaining female plants) the mistletoe on the trees intact. Harvesting is not management.

Plus there is evidence (observations only usually, few hard data) that mistletoe is spreading faster than it used to – mostly noticed in areas where it is usually scarce, but also possibly in its core climatic area too (more difficult to measure here though).

Why is too much mistletoe a problem – surely it’s only a hemi-parasite? Well yes, it is fairly harmless in small quantities. But every branch it grows on is tricked, by the mistletoe, into supporting it, the mistletoe, rather than the tree. And so if it is on every branch that tree is in trouble (as is the mistletoe of course!). The problem is compounded by mistletoe’s greed for water – it will transpire water from the tree’s roots freely, all year round, meaning the tree’s leaves are thirstier than they should be in summer and very stressed in prolonged dry weather (see Mistletoe Diary entry here for more info). And then there’s wind-blow of course (eg see the Mistletoe Diary entry below this one for examples). So some mistletoe good, loadsa mistletoe bad.

(For some general background on mistletoe rarity, management, distribution issues etc have a look at the various Mistletoe Matters Information Sheets here or here).

This is, obviously, a problem that needs to be addressed, and must be a key part of any orchard management strategy in this area. But it is difficult to get ‘authorities’ to take it seriously – largely, in my view, because there are no hard data on the problem. No-one has attempted to quantify it, and without statistics the problem doesn’t exist in any formal strategies.

One attempt to rectify this is the Mistletoe League Project I set up a couple of years ago. This aimed to gather management information over several seasons, anticipating slow take-up. And indeed participation has, so far, been limited. I obviously need to do rather more promotion of it next winter, and perhaps simplify the data entry forms to make it more attractive.

But I thought it would be worth posting some graphics of preliminary results up here on the Mistletoe Diary, for the record, and to help inform discussions.

The following is just a brief slide show of some results. Do bear in mind that some of these stats arise from samples of less than 50 respondents (some less than 10), and are geographically spread, so this is not, yet, an analysis of the situation of most orchards in mistletoe’s core area, just a brief snapshot of very incomplete data, and not scientifically valid:

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(NB the two differing ‘is there more than there used to be?’ charts are from two different sections of the project – one from the fruit trees in orchards section and one from the fruit trees in gardens section)

There are some new initiatives in the pipeline that might help with mistletoe management, not least the developing  (but not yet fully formed) Three Counties Orchard Project which is promoting conservation and management of orchards across Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. Mistletoe management must be a factor in that.

But even projects like that are short-lived, as their funding only lasts a few years. The mistletoe and orchard problem is here to stay, and needs long-term strategy.


February 17, 2014

Fallen mistletoe – good enough to eat!

Filed under: Biodiversity,Blogroll,Mistle Thrush,Mistletoe,Orchard,Science — Jonathan Briggs @ 5:23 pm
Mistletoe-laden Apple Tree downed in recent storms

Mistletoe-laden apple tree downed in recent storms

Last week’s storms brought down yet more mistletoe-laden trees in our local orchards, and I went to look at a few in yesterday’s sunshine. None of the casualties were a surprise – they were all old, neglected apple trees, with far too much mistletoe on them for long-term survival. The storms have (probably) just accelerated some already inevitable deaths.

Another mistletoe-laden Apple Tree damaged in recent storms

Another mistletoe-laden apple tree damaged in recent storms

Nevertheless it is always upsetting to see these trees down, especially in the location pictured here, where most of the orchard is already gone and it can only be a few years now until they’ve all gone. There’s no orchard replanting scheme here, this is a farm outside the (sometimes unreal) world of conservation projects, and it is struggling to survive, the tenant farmer has been given notice to leave and, in the long-term, housing seems the most likely fate for the site.

I’m never sure what the pre-dominant emotion should be – to be sad at the inevitable passing of these old orchards or to be glad to have known them before they went.

Mistletoe Haustorium - the host-parasite interface

Mistletoe Haustorium – the host-parasite interface

But whether sad or glad, a fallen mistletoe-laden tree is a wonderful opportunity to see mistletoe from a new perspective, and I did quite enjoy my exploration among the branches yesterday. The haustorial connections – where the mistletoe distorts the host branch – could be seen at close quarters, the branching patterns properly examined, and rough aging estimated for each clump.

Female flowers, just beginning to open. Those 4 tiny green petals on each is echosed on the mature berry, as the 4 concentric brown scars on each.

Female flowers, just beginning to open. Those 4 tiny green petals on each are echoed on the mature berry, as the 4 concentric brown scars on each. Click to enlarge it if you can’t see it this small.

The mistletoe flowers are just beginning to open too – though not on the mistletoe on fallen trees, their buds remain shut and that mistletoe is dying. But on the live mistletoe on upright trees the female and male flowers were just beginning to crack open, with a hint of nectar showing in some. No pollinating insects yet though – I think the local bees need more than a single day of sunshine to be persuaded out after the weather of the last 2 months!

A dried mistle thrush dropping - comprising a string of mistletoe seeds held together in semi-digested berry mucilage.

A dried Mistle Thrush dropping – comprising a string of mistletoe seeds held together in semi-digested berry mucilage.

Plenty of evidence of birds though – with the usual but always fascinating strings of mistletoe seeds hanging here and there – which are a sure sign of mistle thrush digestive activity.

The lowest-lying mistletoe, unusually accessible to grazing mammals, has all been neatly trimmed by hungry deer.

The lowest-lying mistletoe, unusually accessible to grazing mammals, has all been neatly trimmed by hungry deer.

And evidence of larger animals too, with all the mistletoe leaves grazed off the lowest growths on the fallen trees.

This is despite mistletoe’s modern reputation as poisonous. In truth it is highly prized by grazing animals – when they can reach it – and has a long tradition, in old agricultural practices, as a winter feed. In this location the culprits were probably deer, though sheep and cattle will do exactly the same when they can.

Commercial break – want to grow mistletoe?

EMShopVisit The English Mistletoe Shop for Grow-Kits, Grow-Kit Gift Cards, and mistletoe books etc

February 10, 2014

Mistletoe Berries or Rugby Balls?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jonathan Briggs @ 1:34 pm
Fused mistletoe berries

Fused mistletoe berries

The new mistletoe planting season is here, and we’ve been out harvesting berries for planting projects, grow-kits and just to see how they’re looking this season. Effects of the recent wind and rain are obvious in many of the older mistletoe-laden orchards, with several trees down, complete with mistletoe. Will post some pics of those in due course…

Today I just wanted to post some pictures of aberrant berries. Mistletoe normally has such perfectly-formed spherical berries, each with a single seed, but sometimes the berries fuse in growth, creating monster berries, distorted laterally, and containing several seeds.

Fused mistletoe berries from another angle

Fused mistletoe berries from another angle

One of the plants I was looking at at the weekend had lots of these, perhaps indicating some physiological problem in ovary development, or maybe even genetic disposition, that causes merging (or perhaps splitting, it could happen both ways).

Despite the fusing you can still spot how many berries this should be – as the floral structure leaves a scar on the top of each berry. The big rugby-ball berries in these pictures have 3 scars – so they are three berries in one.


Commercial break – want to grow mistletoe?

EMShopGive the plant that grows kisses for Valentine’s Day!

Visit The English Mistletoe Shop for Grow-Kits, Grow-Kit Gift Cards, and mistletoe books etc

December 29, 2013

Zig-zag mistletoe – red v. green maples

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jonathan Briggs @ 5:56 pm

Studies of European mistletoe’s host preferences often show distinct preferences for particular varieties, or cultivars, within a tree species – so that some varieties of Apple tree are more susceptible than others, as are some varieties of Lime tree, Poplar tree etc.

Demonstrating this convincingly on the ground is difficult – as you generally need a lot of data for lots of trees.

But on Christmas Day this year I suddenly found the perfect demo virtually on our doorstep! And wondered why I’d never noticed it before…

Some background: We live on the edge of Stonehouse, not far from the old Standish Hospital, a rural former NHS hospital now standing empty and decaying in its own grounds – which are a mini-arboretum, with many splendid exotic mature trees. The driveway up to the site has an avenue of relatively young (maybe 30-40 years old) ornamental maples.

Now, we’ve been here over 14 years now, and have walked that drive regularly, as there’s a bridleway route though the site. And over those years we’ve watched as mistletoe has established in those maples, colonising from existing mistletoe colonies in the remnant apple orchards nearby (there’s an old orchard at both ends of the drive) and from mistletoe in nearby poplars.


A view of the Standish hospital maples on 29th December – you can just make out that every other tree has mistletoe.

The revelation: The mistletoe in the maples is now fairly well established – and on Christmas Day afternoon, as we wandered up the hospital drive and back in an effort to walk off some lunch, I was idly assessing the mistletoe in each tree (as one does)  - and suddenly realised that… every other tree in each side of the avenue was mistletoe-free. And the mistletoe-free trees were never opposite across the avenue either. So, if plotted on a map the mistletoe trees would be a zig zag pattern along the drive.


Standish Hospital Drive from the air – the alternating red and green maples are just distinguishable

And why would that be? Well, these maple trees are two varieties – one a red-leaved one and one a green-leaved one – and they are planted in an alternating pattern. So… the mistletoe, which we’ve witnessed developing over the last 14 years, is only colonising one of the maple varieties – not the other. Which one? Well I think it is the red-leaved one – but will have to wait until spring for confirmation. The aerial photo on the right, when compared to the mistletoe pattern we’ve seen (we checked it again today), seems to confirm red though.

So, there you have it – mistletoe colonising one variety of a tree but not another closely related one – despite having decades to do it in and the trees being right next to each other. I’m just slightly embarrassed that I’ve only just noticed!



Commercial break:

EMShopA little Book About Mistletoe is ON PROMOTION at Amazon – currently reduced in the print and Kindle versions – Kindle version is 99p for just the next few days! Click HERE!

And try The English Mistletoe Shop for Grow-Kits, Grow-Kit Gift Cards, Books etc, and mistletoe of course.

Monty’s annual mistletoe misinformation

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jonathan Briggs @ 10:24 am

Monty’s at it again! His annual mistletoe misinformation project is reduced to one small paragraph this year, published as usual in that bastion of misinformation, the Daily Mail. For comment on one of his longer previous efforts have a look at the the Mistletoe Diary for Dec 15th last winter.

Here’s the new article line by line – with my comments

MONTY’S PLANT OF THE WEEK (Daily Mail 28th Dec)

Mistletoe (Viscum album)
“Mistletoe is a parasite.” Almost correct – mistletoe is a hemi-parasite, as it produces its own metabolites through photosynthesis, just like non-parasites.

“The seed is deposited on the bark of a host tree and puts its root into the branch, tapping into its nutrients.” Yes the seed is deposited on the tree’s bark but it doesn’t have ‘roots’ and doesn’t grow ‘into’ the branch – it just penetrates the bark and make the tree’s growth cells grow around it.  The only nutrients it takes are from the tree’s xylem system, which is just water and minerals from the soil, not the tree’s own metabolites.

“As the mistletoe grows outwards its roots are growing inwards.” See comments above – mistletoe does not have roots – and does NOT grow inwards – it makes the host grow outwards around it… (and so creates an illusion that it grows inwards – which is a remarkable phenomenon and surely worth mentioning Monty? ).

“Eventually these block the tree’s nutrient supply and the branch dies, killing its parasite with it.” No (see comments above) – though the branch and tree will be much stressed by the mistletoe and too many mistletoes will hasten tree death. For more on the actual mechanisms Monty might try actually reading it up – he could start with some of the info I reviewed here recently on mistletoe and tree mortality - it’s absolutely fascinating stuff and, again, surely worth covering truthfully Monty??

“Mistletoe loves apples, hawthorn and poplar, but no one knows why it grows in some places and not others, although air quality and humidity seem to be important, as does the migration pattern of birds such as blackcaps that excrete the seed onto suitable branches.” Where to start with this one?? Yes the tree list is accurate, but reasons why it grows where it grows are fairly well understood (though obviously not by Monty) and have nothing to do with air quality (is he getting it confused with lichens???) and whilst blackcaps have a role, their winter role in Britain is only recent, in the last few decades, so is most definitely NOT the reason for mistletoe’s established distribution.

And blackcaps wipe the berry – they don’t excrete it. That might seem a minor point but it’s not – it is fundamentally important to how new winter populations of blackcaps might be gradually changing mistletoe distribution – perhaps the most fascinating mistletoe fact of the moment – which is extremely newsworthy and gardening-relevant – though, sadly, it seems to have passed by Monty entirely.

As I said last year, though not in these words, how does he gets paid for this tripe?

If it was written by a non-specialist it would be forgivable – but such inaccurate info from a ‘gardening expert’ is not, in my view, acceptable.

Commercial break – if you want some accurate information on mistletoe…

EMShopA little Book About Mistletoe is ON PROMOTION at Amazon – currently reduced in the print and Kindle versions – Kindle version is 99p for just the next few days! Click HERE!

And try The English Mistletoe Shop for Grow-Kits, Grow-Kit Gift Cards, Books etc, and mistletoe of course.

December 28, 2013

A Little Book About Mistletoe is on promotion!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jonathan Briggs @ 8:38 pm

A Little Book About Mistletoe is on promotion at Amazon!

In both the paperback and Kindle versions.

Kindle version is just 99p for the next 2 days!

Click here for details.

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