Jonathan's Mistletoe Diary

December 28, 2011

UK Mistletoe looking good, US mistletoe looking, well, a bit scruffy…

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jonathan Briggs @ 5:22 pm

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Whilst we’ve had a ‘bumper crop’ and a ‘glut’ of mistletoe here in the UK they’ve had a shortage over in the USA.

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Theirs is a different species of course, and not really anything like ours – except that it’s a tree parasite with white berries.

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That might (white berries etc) seem to be all that matters, but have a look at the shape of the plants – American v European:

(see pics left – click to enlarge).

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Ours is the real mistletoe of ancient traditions, and I think it shows – ours has real class, with unique forking branches, and perfectly paired leaves, giving it a striking symmetry as well as the white berries of intrigue.

No druid in their right mind would trouble themselves over those scruffy stems of the US-version – why would you think those were magical?

But I digress. Magical or not, that scruffy-looking apology for mistletoe (sorry) US mistletoe has been in short supply this season. And no, it has nothing to do with orchards – the US mistletoe ‘crop’ is taken from trees in the wider countryside, not farmed trees, and it is (this is the US remember) often shot down. None of that climbing up a ladder business we do over here…

[Our druid ancesters must be spinning in their graves at the thought of the plant of peace being harvested with a shot-gun.]

So, why has there been a shortage of US mistletoe?  Basically it’s been too dry for it, and it doesn’t thrive in drought conditions.

Most of the Christmas crop is from the south, traditionally from Texas, where it is marketed in small towns like Goldthwaite and Priddy and shipped across the country. A weeny bit similar (though not much) to Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire, England.

Here’s a quote from one of the largest suppliers Tiemann’s of Priddy:

One of the country’s largest suppliers, Tiemann’s Mistletoe in Priddy, Tex., has halted shipments for the first time in its 58-year history.  “If you have been kissed under the mistletoe and it was bought, there’s a 95 percent chance it came from us,” said Robert Tiemann, the owner.  But not this year. “There’s not enough mistletoe in the State of Texas to run a commercial operation,” said Mr. Tiemann, who is known as Speedy.  He estimated that 60 to 70 percent of the plants in the state have been compromised by the drought, which has been the worst in Texas history. Many retailers and wholesalers in New York have had to reach out to suppliers as far west as California to get the plant.

The quote is from the New York Times – which also comments that some people don’t like the plant:

“It’s an ugly little bush,” said Gardel Prudent of Gardel’s Greene Garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, who will not carry mistletoe this year.

And yes (look left – this is a genuine promotional pic for US mistletoe), it often is an ugly little bush – the tradition of adding a red ribbon seems to be from the US – probably to make it look more presentable…

(take heed girls – this scruffy bit of greenery is what Justin Bieber is singing about – not the true mistletoe of Europe, which he’s probably never seen…)

The full NYTimes report is here – note that some people had to be told the difference between holly and mistletoe, and were then shocked at how pathetic (sorry!)  their mistletoe actually is – perhaps it’s no wonder a lot of Americans substitute holly for mistletoe – compared with their mistletoe species holly is far more presentable.

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Unlike here in Europe where the holly may be jolly but the mistletoe is kisstletoe (sorry, can’t think of a better slogan just now…  I’ll get me coat…)

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6 Comments »

  1. Even if you intended this to be tongue in cheek, I have to disagree on almost all counts, as an American druid with a bumper crop of mistletoe from every oak in the grove. It is, if anything, particularly lush, as it has been through the entire winter. It also strikes me as a bit arrogant, to claim a virtue in saying yours is the mistletoe of ancient British legend, while ours wouldn’t merit any attention. In fact, the Native Americans of the area in which my grove is rooted used the mistletoe for some centuries as well, though they left no written records. Comparing a tied bundle of our mistletoe with a living specimen of yours, complete with well-lit red background, is hardly a fair contest. As I lay beneath a fountain of the plant last night, the moon its backdrop, I’m sure the vision would put a picture of dried English mistletoe to shame as well.
    As for the practice of shooting it down (I personally use a sickle of bronze), this is a decent continuance of the practice of not using ferrous materials, via the Scottish immigrants to Appalachia, while the shotgun is a tool of food collection, far more than one of war, even if I were to agree with you that the original druids were a peaceful lot, an assertion that archaeology would disagree with.

    Comment by Solitary Druid — April 3, 2012 @ 7:08 am | Reply

    • Well, clearly it was a little tongue-in-cheek! It was also intended to make a point. European mistletoe Viscum album is spectacularly beautiful as a plant. Extremely unusual to look at on or off the tree. Phoradendron species may look good on the tree, but sorry, they are just another plant in the hand. They just don’t have the caché, the panache. My pictures may have been exaggerating the point – but that doesn’t make the point any less meaningful, it just means I was stressing it as the main theme. I’m sorry if you don’t accept that – perhaps you’ve never seen European mistletoe.

      As for native American Indians I’m sure they’d look on Phoradendron as special – but I’d bet if they had European mistletoe they see that as a lot more special.

      As for druidry and mistletoe – well, as you say for the Indians, there are no written records. So we do not know, cannot know, what their views were. My opinion is that if they revered mistletoe, for whatever purpose, it would be very much for its mixture of unique properties – evergreen tree parasite on deciduous trees being but one of those. White berries would be another – our species has large, blackcurrant-sized, perfectly spherical, translucent pearly-white berries – yours has white berries, sure, but they’re nothing like as large and impressive – much smaller, not spherical etc. Another factor, and this is a biggie, is the branching pattern of ours. Perfect bifurcations of every branch, every year, with a perfect pair of leaves at the terminal. Now that’s truly special. It looks stunning, even as an individual branch. And up in a tree this will produce a perfect spherical growth – up to 2 or 3 metres across in older growths. That’s magnificently special. Phoradendrons don’t, sadly, have this branching pattern, or perfect terminal leaf-pairs, at all – so, in the hand or in the tree, look nothing like mistletoe as the druids would have known it. Sorry.

      I’m sure you have some magnificent mistletoe in your oak grove. My points about the American ‘crop’ this year were generalising, but based, sorry again, on the undeniable reality that the primary mistletoe wholesalers down in Texas (I don’t know where you are) were reporting a shortage and blaming it on dry conditions. That can’t be disagreed with. They couldn’t get what they needed, and what they got wasn’t up to standard.

      The comments about shooting it down were, of course, also a bit tongue-in-cheek – but whenever that’s mentioned over here at Christmas it always raises a giggle amongst listeners – over here we just don’t get guns out to harvest vegetation, and it comes across as a typically US American thing.

      As for druids being peaceful – well that’s also a bit tongue on cheek of course. They may or may not have been. But don’t try and tell me archaeologists know anything about druids. They don’t. The only information anyone has about druids is the Roman accounts. There is no archaeological evidence one way or another. (Don’t get me going on Lindow Man – but if you want to know my views there search on this blog).

      The main plus for your Phoradendron over the original Viscum is that yours does grow on oaks – and Pliny said that mistletoe that grows on oaks was especially revered. Viscum album is incredibly rare on oak – so druids over here usually have to make do with it on other hosts. So, you have an advantage there – though of course, the reason druids revered it on oak (assuming Pliny was right in the first place), was probably because, er, it was rare. So the relative frequency of Phoradendron on oak could be seen as devaluing the tradition. I’m not trying to make another negative here, just making a point that it was the unusualness of the situation that may have been part of its appeal – so perhaps in North America, having switched to another mistletoe, you should also consider switching druidic attention to another, less usual, host.

      /|\

      Comment by Jonathan Briggs — April 3, 2012 @ 9:32 am | Reply

  2. Perhaps if it is such a rarity that your men of the oak deign to go to lesser trees for it, then one could chalk it up to your land not getting what it needs over the last few millennia. I don’t know why I would want to change my reverence for the oak…you do realize the oldest oak fossils in the world are found in North America, and that their ages correspond to the dates of the original oaks, calculated from genetic information, don’t you? I’m guessing since you discount the multitude of Gallic sites with clear evidence of a headhunter mentality, you might not get into the literature very often, so that is my gift of knowledge to you. If we are to trust only in those Roman sources, you will note that he speaks of the sixth day of the moon, which occurs 13 times a year. Though it might be a peculiarity of our American mistletoe (I’m sure a mistletoe expert could say), the berries, which you you cite as evidence of why it would have been harvested, aren’t actually on the plant year-round. Spherical habits are not unusual here, either, even without “perfect” bifurcation (the lack of which results in awen after awen as each set of leaves jut out from the stem).

    Well, now that is where I was being tongue-in-cheek…while the native Americans may not have written things down centuries ago, they also still exist. If you do have a chance to get beyond your little island from time to time, perhaps you could speak with them to ask what they think of your spindly variety. True, the Phoradendron serotinum ssp. tomentosum berries I have here in the Sierra foothills are not white balls, but rather like luminescent flesh-colored breasts, though I know which prototype I prefer. I will give you one thing though, Viscum, with all of its caché and panache, does seem more continental than British. 😉

    The truth is that druids did not (and do not) harvest mistletoe because of its scientific description or growth habits, but because it collects and concentrates the golden light of the oak, and this, I can assure you, is not lessened at all by its growth on Quercus lobata vs Quercus macrolepsis, or by its being classified Phoradendron spp. vs Viscum spp. /|\

    Comment by Solitary Druid — April 5, 2012 @ 9:14 pm | Reply

    • I’m not entirely sure we should continue this exchange as we seem to winding each other up a little. But here goes anyway!

      Your assertions are a very strange mix of facts, timings and traditions. We’re talking biology here – different mistletoe species (there are 1500 of them around the world) have differing host preferences. Your comment about our land not getting what it needs, as an explanation for lack of oak-based mistletoe, is missing the fundamental point that different species do different things. That’s the wonder of botany.

      The oldest oak fossils are not even conceivably relevant here as they pre-date any ‘druid’ activity by 100s of 1000s of years. My point about the oak was both tongue-in-cheek and real – ancient druids (who were in northern Europe, not in the Sierra foothills) really would have found mistletoe to be rare on oak. And that probably (my opinion) would have made mistletoe more special. If it had been common on oak I doubt they’d have paid it so much attention. Some yes, but I doubt it would have been significant enough for Pliny to have noted it. He tended to remark on the oddities. (And was often wildly inaccurate – but let’s not worry too much about that)

      As for the Roman 6th Day point being 13 times a year, yes that’s true. And yes of course berries are only there, in ripe form, in one season (I shall ignore your comment suggesting a mistletoe expert would know…). My point about the berries was that most people assume (possibly incorrectly but it does make some sense) Pliny meant the mid-winter moon – which coincides with berry ripeness, so the mistletoe is at its most spectacular. That may be a misinterpretation – I’ve raised the exact point now and then with druid groups over here but they like to stick to the midwinter interpretation . But that’s all any of the druidry stuff is, just interpretation. There are no known facts.

      Interesting to read your odd little point about Viscum being more continental than British. Not sure whether you’re just joking with the French words I’m using (which would seem a little petty – whoops there’s another one of French origin) or whether you’re making some strange parochial point. I suspect the latter from your reference to our little island, from which, you can be assured, we can and do travel all over the world. Sometimes to see other mistletoe species.

      For the record, since you raise it, Viscum album has a restricted distribution in Britain, based on climatic preferences and so it will have changed over the last few 1000 years. In the rest of Europe it is frequent across the central area, absent from the extreme north and south but extending well into Asia, with subspecies occurring as far East as China. It is also present in some parts of north Africa. Some other species kick in in central southern Europe, including a red-berried Viscum and the deciduous Loranthus europeaus, which actually loves growing on oaks – right in the area the Celts, and so perhaps the Druids, came from (this is pre-Roman period now). Which raises all sorts of interesting points about origins of the tradition – were they familiar with this other mistletoe species, that DID like oak? But it’s a deciduous species, so it doesn’t have that je ne sais quoi.

      Whilst on local matters, druidry, in the form originally documented by the Romans, was of course entirely based in northern France and Britain, and druids’ vegetation-based customs are therefore based on the flora of this area. The Romans did not get the opportunity to see many other mistletoes, or document druids, anywhere else so we cannot say what a druid approach would have been to other mistletoes. They would, I’m sure, be impressed by the range elsewhere – and I would expect different customs for different species. In the US you have a lot more mistletoe species, especially if you count in the Arceuthobiums (now they really are impressive little beasts – with gas-propelled seeds) so I’m sure an ancient druid would have a fine old time of it getting to know the different sorts and finding/assigning uses and customs for them. There’s a lot that can be done with them.

      Which brings me to your last point, about the truth of druid mistletoe worship being because “because it collects and concentrates the golden light of the oak”. You give this as ‘truth’ but it’s just an interpretation of what druids may have seen in mistletoe, not a truth. Unless, of course, you have a time machine and an English-Celtic Phrase book.

      Now, here’s something more locally useful for you. You’re in the Sierra foothills? Which I assume is central-eastern California? If that’s the case you can go see Viscum album fairly easily. The only established US colony of it, the true druid mistletoe, is just west of you in Sonoma County, centred on Sebastopol. It’s been there about 100 years, is spreading slowly from a centre point attributed to a planting by Luther Burbank. Causing some concerns by all accounts – there have been several studies of its spread, including a PhD study by some German bloke whose name I’ve not got to hand – about 10 years ago if I remember rightly. Growing it deliberately in the US is prohibited – it is classified as a potentially damaging alien parasitic plant – which of course it is. But if you want to see it go and have a look. Just be wary of the temptation to take berries back and plant them (unless of course you have got a Federal License to plant it). And remember it doesn’t generally like oaks! /|\

      Comment by Jonathan Briggs — April 6, 2012 @ 12:12 am | Reply

      • I actually reside in Santa Rosa, in Luther Burbank’s back yard, though the grove is in the Sierra foothills, so I *have* seen European mistletoe. That aside, I’m mainly just having fun with you. I’ll bow out, though. I actually enjoy your blog quite a bit…just can’t have my natives dissed without saying something.

        Comment by Solitary Druid — April 6, 2012 @ 2:20 am

      • So you haven’t got a time machine? Pity, it could have been useful.

        Comment by Jonathan Briggs — April 6, 2012 @ 8:03 am


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