The peaceful side of mistletoe

With the centenary of the Armistice tomorrow it seems fitting to briefly re-visit the tradition of mistletoe as a symbol of peace – which is now often overlooked.

Tradition holds that the Romans considered mistletoe a plant of parley, and that opposing armies would negotiate peace treaties under a mistletoe growth. This may, or may not, be strictly true but I doubt mistletoe played an active role in the 1918 peace negotiations.

Other traditions also reference mistletoe as a plant of peace; some versions of the Norse Baldur legend, in which Baldur is slain with a mistletoe-tipped weapon, suggest that his mother Frigga (a goddess of love) decreed that mistletoe must never do such harm ever again – and she proclaimed that all who meet under it henceforth will embrace and be friends.

The Greek legend of Aeneas visiting the Underworld also reflects an element of mistletoe as a peace symbol, with Aeneas using mistletoe, aka The Golden Bough, to gain safe passage to and from Hades.

These aspects of mistletoe tradition are rarely mentioned today – most people simply remember it as a symbol of love, friendship and romance. These are, of course, merely a variation on the same theme. The peace symbolism was perhaps remembered in mainland Europe longer than in the UK, with a strong tradition of mistletoe as a plant of good luck – a Porte Bonheur – in France well into the 20th century and maybe still today. The French New Year greeting Au Gui L’An Neuf  relates to the giving of mistletoe as a good luck gift for the New Year.

1915mtoeediteddown1But, getting back to peace itself, could it be that mistletoe actively seen as a peace symbol – particularly in the awful reality of the Great War? This was, after all, fought on land where mistletoe was still valued for its luck and peace properties.

It’s difficult to be sure – but there is a fair amount of mistletoe imagery amongst pictures of the time, including several sets where soldiers wear mistletoe in their hats. I rather doubt they were expecting to kiss anyone so it seems more likely they wore it for luck.

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There was also use of mistletoe imagery in postcards sent back from the front  – some specifically themed as Peace or Luck – so perhaps those are real proof of the ongoing, at that time, belief in mistletoe as a peace/luck symbol.  But the evidence is patchy, and those postcards could be coincidental use of mistletoe, as a Christmas symbol, simply being used in a postcard sent at Christmas.

It is tempting to make a link though – and there are other possible examples from WW2 that add a bit of weight to the concept. But these too could be coincidental. One of my favourites is a remark Winston Churchill made in December 1944, on his high-risk (but successful) visit to Athens to stabilise the situation there by negotiating with the various Greek factions. On Christmas Day 1944, after flying in secretly, he was billeted offshore aboard HMS Ajax whose captain warned him that despite his mission it might be necessary for the ship to enter into action at any time.  Churchill responded by saying:

“Pray remember, Captain, that I come here as a cooing dove of peace, bearing a sprig of mistletoe in my beak – but far be it from me to stand in the way of military necessity”.  

Was that reference to a mistletoe sprig (rather than an olive branch) merely because it was Christmas – or did Churchill understand that mistletoe was also a plant of peace?

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If you want to grow your own plant of peace and luck why not buy a Mistletoe Grow-Kit (or Grow-Kit Gift Card) from the English Mistletoe Shop?

Details at  https://englishmistletoeshop.co.uk/live/

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Mistletoe ‘crop’ 2018 – looking good, ripening early?

aimage006redAlmost November, so time to look at how mistletoe is looking for Christmas this year. And, again (this is several years in a row now) it’s looking fairly good.  The female plants I’ve looked at are festooned with berries and it would seem we have yet another ‘bumper crop’.

Of course it’s not a crop, not in the conventional sense of something grown for harvest, as most simply grows where it wants to and isn’t actively encouraged.  But in areas and habitats where it grows well – primarily the SW midlands in mature (often over-mature) apple orchards – it can seem like a crop, and certainly can be harvested like one.

One unusual aspect this season is that many of the berries are whitening up already – whereas they normally stay green well into November.  Why, I don’t know, but it does seem consistent with many other berries and fruits ripening earlier than usual this year. So far it’s only whitening from green, the later change from opaque white to translucent white usually only happens in December/January, so it will be interesting to see if that is early this year too.

First wholesale auctions of apple orchard mistletoe are at the end of November – I’ll report then on how the plants have matured, and what prices are like.

The pictures here were all taken in Gloucestershire Orchard Trust’s orchards at Longney, on the banks of the Severn just south of Gloucester, last week.

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Some mistletoe events at Tenbury Wells 2018

Tenbury is hosting its mistletoe auctions and festival again this year.

auction1Mistletoe Auction dates are:

  • Tuesday 27th November
  • Tuesday 4th December
  • Tuesday 11th December

All take place at Burford House Garden Stores, Burford, Tenbury Wells, WR15 8HQ and are organised by Nick Champion.

 

druids1Druid Mistletoe Ceremony is on Saturday 1st December
This is organised by The Mistletoe Foundation who will be on the Burgage in Tenbury Wells for the Mistletoe Ceremony at 2pm as part of Tenbury Mistletoe Festival 2018.

The ceremony will honour the Mistletoe, male and female plants, and the harvests of the Teme Valley.  Participants (all welcome) are invited to meet at S.E.N.S.E (Temeside House, Teme St, Tenbury Wells, Worcestershire, WR15 8AA) at 1.15pm. The procession to the Burgage will begin at 1.45pm. Or you can join in at the Burgage from 2pm.

Other Mistletoe Festival Event information will be available soon – you can check the Tenbury Mistletoe Association website (showing last year’s events at present)  or their facebook page for updates.

Plans for Mistletoe Diary winter 2018/9

mistletoemachineIt’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!)

More info, as always, on the sites linked at http://mistletoe.org.uk/

And, for growing it, try englishmistletoeshop.co.uk or growmistletoe.co.uk

Mythletoe Growing Myths

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.

The seeds just need to be put on a branch.

The seeds just need to be put on a branch.

The seeds just need to be put on a branch.

The seeds just need to be put on a branch.

For considered advice visit mistletoe.org.uk/homewp/index.php/grow-your-own/ and for Grow-Your-Own Kits visit englishmistletoeshop.co.uk

Mistletoe Kissing #1 – the good side

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!

Dean Cook reprising his role for a Daily Mail article (but this time with plastic mistletoe – yuck!)

Researching the two young actors is interesting – there are several media reports on the boy, Dean Cook, with a specific feature in the Guardian in 2014 and inclusion in a Daily Mail ‘famous poses’ feature in 2017 (they picture him taking the same pose now – see left). Dean is, depending on which reports you read, either still acting or running an upholstery firm, possibly both of course.

But who was the girl?

 

 


I’ll venture into ‘Mistletoe Kissing #2 – the Dark Side ‘ in a day or two…

 


Meanwhile, of course, if you want to find out more about mistletoe, try the Mistletoe Pages and the English Mistletoe Shop.

Birdlime #1 – Sticky Ends

Sticky excreted mistletoe berry pulp, and seeds, at a thrush toilet in a mistletoe-laden tree
Sticky excreted mistletoe berry pulp, and seeds, at a thrush toilet in a mistletoe-laden tree

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…


In the meantime, if you want to handle (and grow more) some of those sticky berries yourself, why not buy a Mistletoe Grow-Kit from the English Mistletoe Shop?  Details here: https://englishmistletoeshop.co.uk/live/