The Druids worshipped mistletoe on oak. Or so Pliny (23-79 AD) tells us, but no-one’s quite sure whether he knew what he was talking about.
Nevertheless, mistletoe on oak has been regarded, ever since Pliny’s day, as something wondrous. It’s very rare, and it was worshipped by the druids!
[Note to overseas readers - I'm talking here about the original, European, mistletoe, Viscum album - you may think mistletoe is rather common on oak near you - but I'm sorry, that would be another species of mistletoe, and that mistletoe has nothing to do with druids].
In Britain there’re only about 12 of these ‘mistletoe oaks’ in existence – so they are pretty special. Though a few are cheats – proper mistletoe, but growing on non-native imported oak species. Which isn’t quite right, but is usually counted in the total.
Last week I got the chance to revisit a couple of these oaks (most are within mistletoe’s core UK area – so within Herefs, Worcs or Glos). I hadn’t visited either of them for about 10 years. How had they changed? Were they still there? Was the mistletoe surviving/thriving (it tends to be a bit stunted on oak)?
Well, there’s good news and bad news…
The Good News: Oak #1, a well-known mistletoe oak in a churchyard, was thriving, and the mistletoe had spread – several clumps more than when I last saw it.
This is a non-native oak – Quercus rubra, or Q borealis I think – and mistletoe does grow better on these. Not the oak of the druids though.
And no, I’m not saying exactly where it is (though it’s not difficult to work out) as these oaks need some basic protection from those who might believe Pliny a little too literally and strip it off to do something (what?) with…
Which brings us to the Bad News.
Oak#2, a venerable old tree known to have had mistletoe for well over 100 years, and a native oak to boot, seemed to be missing its mistletoe.
This one’s out in the countryside, and the mistletoe WAS high up, about 10m, on one side of the main trunks. But there was no sign of it when we visited this week.
Has it been rustled? There are, believe it or not, people who pay good money for this sort of mistletoe – so it could even have been rustled to order! Speculation is, as always, fruitless.
But the key issue is has it gone for good? Chances are, actually, that it hasn’t. It has been reported as extinct on this oak before, and has always re-appeared (the magic of the oak?), so maybe the bad news is only temporary.
There was plenty of mistletoe in nearby trees – mostly in hawthorn, but also, unusually, in a closely adjoining mature ash (see pic on left).
Perhaps the ash was just keeping the mistletoe tradition going, whilst the oak mistletoe recovered – we shall see….