Jonathan's Mistletoe Diary

November 30, 2011

Twittering mistletoe? Thrushes v Blackcaps?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jonathan Briggs @ 4:42 pm

Here at Mistletoe Matters HQ, there’s not been a lot of tweeting.  Haven’t ever quite got the point of it.  But, as there’s been a sudden surge in blog viewing data today, I thought perhaps I should check whether it might be due to some twitter trending that was happening behind the scenes.

So, I dusted down my little used twitter account @Viscumalbum and had a quick look for #mistletoe – and, as expected, found that the twitosphere is full of ravings/rantings about that Bieber bloke and his mistletoe song (see blogs from October for views on that…).  Am unlikely to have got many hits from that lot.  So, am none the wiser on the surge – and didn’t find a lot of material of any use either.

One thing that did catch my attention was a tweet from Kate Humble, mentioning she was off to film thrushes on mistletoe for the Christmas Springwatch special.  I hope she and the beeb are not limiting this to thrushes though – the big bird story for mistletoe these days isn’t thrushes, it’s a new race of Blackcaps, overwintering here from Germany, and possibly implicated in the spread of new mistletoe colonies.  It would be a shame if Springwatch missed out on that story – maybe I’ll be forced to actually use twitter and reply to her…

November 29, 2011

Santa was green, but the mistletoe was a bit off-colour

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jonathan Briggs @ 5:58 pm

First Tenbury mistletoe auction of the season – attended, as anticipated, by Worcestershire’s Green Santa (click here for some of his activities last year).   Lots of opportunities for photos, especially his ‘crowning’ with a mistletoe garland by auctioneer Nick Champion.

But what was that grumbling I heard about ‘green colour’ amongst some buyers? Surely they hadn’t taken against Santa?  No, Santa was fine, and could go on his way (to another engagement near Bromsgrove) happy.

The mumbling about colour was all down to the mistletoe – because there was some of the yellowy-leaved stuff amongst the lots.  The hype so far this year has been about another high-quality ‘bumper mistletoe’ crop, with loads of berries – and yes, indeed there were lots of berries.  But the impression of a quality crop was a little reduced by that yellow mistletoe – which is unusual to see at these auctions.

There’s not necessarily (though see below) anything wrong with it, it’s a natural colour for some mistletoe, but it isn’t as attractive as the greener stuff.  This may not matter for those selling it on for corporate events etc, but must affect sales and reduce price for retail sales.  I spoke with representatives from three online mistletoe retailers on site about this – and all agreed that they would have put the yellow stuff in the composting pile – and would not try to sell it, let alone buy it!  So it was a little odd to see it offered (though it did sell, so someone’s not so fussy!).

I hope it’s not a sign of increasing amounts of stressed mistletoe being brought for sale.  Stressed mistletoe, often yellower then the norm, is associated with host trees that have become too overgrown with mistletoe, and is often seen in older overgrown neglected orchards.  A point which reminds me to mention that the new Mistletoe League Project, looking to document attitudes to mistletoe management in orchards, is now online at www.british.mistletoe.org.uk.

Second pic shows Xanthe Clay, Food Columnist at the Daily Telegraph posing with Green Santa.  Her red and white look, reminiscent of Red Santa,  really emphasises the Green Santa difference – he’s very Dickensian (think ‘Ghost of Christmas Present’).

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The holly, by the way, was looking absolutely fine.  Loads of berries, despite the Daily Mail’s annual scare-mongering story about a holly berry shortage last Sunday.

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November 27, 2011

Green Santa, plus Telegraph good, Daily Mail bad

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jonathan Briggs @ 9:39 pm

First mistletoe auction of 2011 is next week – Tuesday 29th, 10.00am at the Business Park in Tenbury Wells.

And, for the first time ever, Santa will be there! Not your usual Santa either – this one is green, not red! This is not because of the mistletoe (well, actually, it is a little) but is intended to reflect the older tradition of a Father Christmas in green, considered by many to be the ‘proper’ colour. The Red Santa we’re all used to is, of course, an evil manifestation created by Coca Cola – or so urban myth tells us (see the wikipedia entry on this for background, though it may confuse rather than enlighten, or try this site for a simpler story).

Druids from the Mistletoe Foundation will be there too – though in civvies, partly to remain incognito, and partly to avoid confusion with Santa – who, in green, might well look like the popular concept of a druid.

Programme will, probably, be holly sales before mistletoe sales, and it will be interesting to see how many berries there are on it (the holly). There’s a story in the Daily Mail today that holly berries are in short supply, though I’ve not seen evidence of this – lots of them on all the plants I’ve seen, and the story is roundly refuted in the online comments too, so it may be another one of those Daily Mail shock, horror slightly made-up, or at least very exaggerated,  stories…

Within the holly story they’ve managed to repeat the story that the ‘glut’ of mistletoe berries is due to a mild November – which they ran a couple of days ago and I pointed out was, er, entirely incorrect. Tried doing the same today, twice, but they didn’t let my comment through to publication…  Phrases including the words ‘useless’, ‘inaccurate’, ‘bunch’ and ‘illiterates’ (I’m very polite) spring to mind – but it is the Mail, so I s’pose it’s normal for them.

The Telegraph is doing better, and I’m not just saying that because they had a picture of me (shown left, by Rod Kirkpatrick/F Stop Press) yesterday. Only a short caption to it (not available online), but at least they attributed the berries to the right season – the spring, when they first formed.

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November 24, 2011

High, but not mighty, mistletoe

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jonathan Briggs @ 5:15 pm

The best mistletoe is the highest – or at least that’s what it usually looks like.

Have been out and about in some of the derelict/abandoned/neglected orchards of the Severn Vale around Gloucester this week.  Loads of mistletoe on these old apple trees – too much on many of them.  And the reachable clumps?  They always seem a little yellowy (or ‘golden’ as we mistletoe aficionados like to say), and rather less marketable than the higher stuff.

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Now, if I’m rambling around orchards, I don’t often have a ladder on me.  So reaching those higher, greener clumps can be a challenge.  Hence the extending pruner – but even this, as the picture shows, can find itself a little inadequate sometimes.

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And when that tantalising lofty mistletoe comes down?  It’s often just as yellow (sorry, golden) as the lower stuff after all.  But it’s a good stretching exercise.

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I should consider myself lucky – at least our mistletoe is worth gathering.  Over in North America the mistletoe species tend to be rather smaller, and even higher up the tree.

Here’s a link to Ginny Smith’s recent blog about hunting mistletoe in New Jersey.  Her picture is reproduced on the left here – can you spot the mistletoe?

November 22, 2011

mistletoe nonsense already!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jonathan Briggs @ 6:03 pm

Well, a few days ago I mentioned it was another mistletoe bling year – with loads of berries on the mistletoe.

And mentioned that the media always want to know why is it a good year? And pointed out that the answer lies back at least 9 months ago when the flowers were pollinated, possibly further back, when the flower buds formed 18 months ago.

So, what have the Telegraph and the Mail said today? Well, they’ve said it’s due to the current mild November.  Which is so absurdly unlikely it beggars belief.  The Mail even claims that mistletoe hates harsh weather – which seems pretty odd for a plant that flowers and ripens its fruits in December to February.

The only good thing about this level of rubbish, ill-informed and badly researched reporting so early in the season is that things can only get better…

November 21, 2011

Where’s your mistletoe from?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jonathan Briggs @ 10:34 am

Where do you get your mistletoe?  It seems a simple question, and it was asked here last year (for the 2010 survey).

It’s not really a simple question of course. Recent posts here have highlighted the issue of imports, and not knowing where they’re from (or even if they’re imports!) and there are difficulties in determining local provenance too.  So do you know where yours comes from?

Some people seem very sure, despite making unlikely claims.  In the December issue of BBC Countryfile Magazine TV presenter  Ellie Harrison states that she gets hers ‘by going for a walk in the woods at Randwick’ near Stroud, and implies this is a family tradition.  But mistletoe isn’t a woodland species (it only thrives in trees in open habitats), and Randwick Woods (which I know well, I live 2 miles away) are not a mistletoe habitat.

There’s lots of it in the surrounding countryside of course, as Randwick is in the middle of mistletoe country – but if you wanted to pick it you’d go to a local apple orchard (plenty just below Randwick Woods in the Severn Vale, and a few remnants in Randwick village) or to the churchyard limes, or a local back garden, or to the scrubby hawthorns and whitebeams of the common land around Haresfield Beacon (a 15 minute walk from Randwick Woods).    There’s mistletoe in all those places and habitats.  But you wouldn’t (sorry Ellie), you just wouldn’t, go into Randwick Woods to look for it.  Why would you even try?  Even it was in there it would be easier to pick and hugely more abundant in other habitats close-by.  Perhaps Ellie is muddling up memories of family holly gathering expeditions – far more realistic a prospect for the woods.  Though you would expect better grasp of ecology and foraging from a BBC countryside presenter.

[I hardly dare suggest direct confusion with holly though, unlikely as it sounds, there ARE a lot of people who confuse holly and mistletoe.  Click here for a previous year’s rant about that issue in the US]

The Randwick Woods story does, unwittingly, illustrate the the much larger uncertainty over mistletoe-gathering – who does it, and where.  Last Christmas, Mistletoe Matters ran an online survey project asking where people got their mistletoe – shop, market, their own garden etc.  Results were, in some ways, not what might be expected.  Though some was from supermarkets, greengrocers and street markets the proportion in those (6%, 20% and 18% respectively) was small compared to the number who picked their own from the garden (37%) or from the countryside (10%).

With mistletoe being relatively scarce over much of the the UK, and difficult to find in either gardens or countryside outside its main distribution area of the south-west midlands these figures are a little surprising.

But there is almost certainly a strong bias, in the respondents, to the ‘mistletoe-aware’, people who understand a little about the plant and where it grows, and either live in that south-west midlands area or are actively encouraging it in their garden outside of this area.  That explanation is impossible to prove of course, as the survey did not gather location data – perhaps it should have done, but it’s too late for that now..

And there is an echo, in that 10% picking their own in the countryside figure, of a 9% picking their own figure from a UKTV survey back in 2007.  At the time I was a little scathing about that result, pointing out that it seemed very unlikely – for the reasons given above.  I still stick to my disbelief on those data – though am now forced to admit that my own survey data agree with it!  But both are, almost certainly, reflecting some bias – either in those completing the questionnaire (in my case mistletoe afficionados) or in the questioning and style of the questionnaire (the impression gained from the 2007 survey was that it was a ‘life-style’ thing – it included the equally unbelievable claim that 65% of Brits have champagne breakfasts on Christmas Day).

I hope you know where you get yours – and that holly is different…

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Looking for mistletoe this season?  have a look at the recent review of online mistletoe suppliers in the UK, including, of course the English Mistletoe Shop, which I help run, and offers the best deals (well, I would say that wouldn’t I?) on mistletoe grow-kits, books and cards, as well as mistletoe…

November 13, 2011

Another mistletoe bling year…

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jonathan Briggs @ 9:13 am

Loadsa berries on the mistletoe again this season.  Which make it about the 4th year in a row for a mega-berry crop.  The Christmas media will love this – the headlines about Berried Treasure (geddit?) will be almost inevitable.

As will the questions about why.

Always, every year, reporters  want to know why the berry crop is good (or bad, in some years).  They want to blame a lack of birds, too many birds, a hot summer, a dry summer, a cold spring, a warm winter. The state of the Euro.  Anything, doesn’t matter what it is – they just want a reason. But there isn’t a firm answer – and probably never will be – so they often just make something up.

When pressed, I usually point out that since the berries only arise from pollinated female flowers, it must have been a good year for pollination.  From which it follows that pollinating conditions must have been good in February, when mistletoe flowers open.  And yes, there were some wonderful sunny days last February, when the early flies and bees were out and busy on the mistletoe.  Sounds a reasonable argument to me.  All due to the conditions 9 months ago.

Except that it isn’t.  Those February flowers were formed, in bud form, in the previous summer, surviving the late summer, autumn and mid-winter as dormant terminal buds.  So, maybe it was a good previous summer for flower bud formation?   Which would make it all due to the conditions 18 months ago.  Which also sounds reasonable.

But why stop there?  Why not go back to the season before that when the shoots that grew during that summer were first forming?

All very confusing, and not what the everyday reporter wants to know.  So I usually stick with that last February angle – it’s convincing enough most of the time.

November 10, 2011

Mistletoe man up a tree

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jonathan Briggs @ 8:06 pm

The December issues of the monthlies are out this week – a moment that always makes me a little nervous as my mistletoe work – conservation, management, research and marketing – is usually featured in one or two of them.  And I’m never quite sure what’s being said and how it’s being presented – until I see it.

First to make an impression this season is Country Living – a nicely worded one page piece about the marketing and trading work accompanied by a picture of me up a tree, taken late last winter.  Looking a little bit like an dumpy elf (a bit fore-shortened as my bum is hanging over the back of the branch…) in wellies.

Not quite sure about that ‘Christmas Character’ headline though – by the time Christmas comes round I’ve usually had enough of it – overdosed on too much mistletoe in November and December.

Not quite in Bah, Humbug territory, but getting close sometimes…

November 9, 2011

Mistletoe Supply and European Economics

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jonathan Briggs @ 8:02 pm

The last Mistletoe Diary entry discussed some online mistletoe traders in the UK, but what about mistletoe traders from over the channel?   Is that trade good, bad, stable or changing? Should we Brits (especially those promoting British-grown mistletoe) be worried about it?

Every season there’s always a hint of paranoia over here about this.  French Mistletoe Imports On The Rise scream the tabloids.  Often followed by stories claiming French Mistletoe has fewer berries, or yellower leaves, or is ‘diseased’.   And yes, it is always ‘French’.

There’s even a belief that it’s a different species (it isn’t).  When I supplied pictures to a municipal event in Worcestershire last year labelled ‘European Mistletoe, Viscum album‘ they were rejected – ‘we want pictures of English Mistletoe please’, they said.  Er, that is English Mistletoe I responded – they were pictures of the English crop of European Mistletoe. The phytogeographical element was, perhaps, too subtle or too botanical for them, but England is, last time I checked, part of Europe (certainly in the geographic sense –  I won’t comment on the EU aspect of that just now).

There are even suggestions, each year, that the French harvest is somehow different, or easier. But it isn’t – it’s mostly from decaying old apple orchards just the same as the UK crop, and, just like in the UK this mistletoe harvest will diminish as those old orchards continue to be grubbed up or neglected to death.

So not many of those beliefs seem to stand up to scrutiny. What about the Imports On The Rise scare?   Surely this French cropping and export to Angleterre is new?  Er, no, that’s not true either.   Britain has been importing mistletoe from France, and other European countries since at least the 1890s.  Cross-channel ferries of that time had decks piled high with mistletoe in the weeks before Christmas. We probably never grew enough to satisfy seasonal demand after the Victorians popularised the kissing custom.

By the 1930s the French imports were the dominant source – out-classing UK traders in the run-up to Christmas.  So no, imports aren’t new, and there’s no evidence they’re increasing either. [the three pics show 1920s &30s French harvesting, mistletoe arriving at Southampton, and then arriving at a London Station].

What about smaller berries, yellower leaves and disease? No evidence for that either, other than a logical deduction that since the French stuff might have spent a wee bit longer in transit it might look a bit tired. But, with no labelling, how can you tell if a sprig is French or English (or Welsh – there’s a good crop down in Gwent)?  You can’t.  They look the same.

So imports aren’t new,  they’re not increasing, they’re not a different species,  and they’re not lower quality.  But they are definitely French aren’t they? Peut-être, mais peut-être pas…

In recent years, with the opening up of Eastern European trade there’s been a lot of interest from wannabe mistletoe entrepreneurs in the east.  Every season I get enquiries from Poland, Romania, Bulgaria etc. ‘We have lots of mistletoe, how can we sell it to the UK?’ they ask.  This year I’ve added Ukraine and Transylvania (ok, that’s part of Romania but it’s too cool a name to omit) to the enquiry list.

So what do I tell them? Well, I tell them that it might not be as lucrative as they think – wholesale prices are very low and may not cover their petrol (certainly not their man-hours).  But if they can line up decent buyers – hotel chains, party organisers etc, especially in London, they might get a return. But only if the mistletoe is fresh-looking on arrival – no-one will pay decent money for some droopy twigs that last saw a tree 2 and a half weeks ago. Transit time must be short.

And do they go ahead and bring mistletoe over?  I have no idea.  Feedback has been minimal – and I’ve not yet heard of anyone selling Bulgarian mistletoe in London.   If you know, do get in touch.

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