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Mistletoe

In my small Forncett apple orchard boughs of mistletoe hang from each apple tree. It is an unusual plant, poised between heaven and earth and not rooted in the soil; this fact was deemed to be its primary mystery by the Druids. They were the high priests of a religion dating from the Bronze Age and were a powerful hierarchy among the ancient Britons. They believed that mistletoe was endowed with divine and magical power and these pre-Christian ideas still cling to it even now as we claim Christmas kisses under the sprig in our front rooms.

2023.12.Mistletoe.Photo Carol SharpMistletoe. Photo Carol Sharp

The Druidic ceremony of mistletoe cutting took place as the new moon appeared at New Year. A priest severed the mistletoe with a golden sickle and it was caught in a white cloak before it could touch the earth. A young man then distributed its branches, full of virtue and magical power, to the members of the tribe. The Roman historian Pliny maintained that at this yearly gathering two white bulls, their horns bound together, were sacrificed.

Mistletoes are still green when all the leaves of the host plant have dropped. Their circular shape is formed of tiers of twigs with paired leaves, making wishbone patterns, magnificent in their green-gold vitality as winter closes in.

It is a dioeciousplant with the females bearing berries and the separate males bearing pollen. At Christmas it is the boughs bearing the pearly white berries that are sought after and harvested. It is a partial parasitic plant, tapping into the branches of its host tree for nutrients and water although it also uses photosynthesis to survive.

Native mistletoe is a declining plant in Britain, partly because old apple orchards continue to be grubbed out. This is a pity because it can support a range of special species, including mistle thrushes and blackcaps who eat its berries in winter and the tiny mistletoe marblemoth that mines and eats its leaves and pupates in the bark of the host tree. Recent research reveals that mistletoe has a positive effect on the biodiversity surrounding it. The seeds have a sticky coating and as the birds move from branch to branch they wipe their beaks often leaving a seed stuck into a bark crevice from where a new plant may grow. It can be found on hawthorn, very rarely on oak, but also on lime and poplar.

Dramatically beautiful mistletoe festoons the branches of the long avenue of limes at Kentwell Hall in Suffolk, planted in 1678. β€œOn moonlit nights in winter the clumps glisten in the upper branches like balls of mist,” writes Norfolk naturalist Richard Mabey.

Mistletoe is poisonous to humans, although accounts of poisoning are very rare. It contains a toxin, particularly in the leaves.  It was used as a medicine for epilepsy up until the mid 20th Century in rural communities. In Herefordshire mistletoe was given to sheep after lambing and cows after calving. Six berries pounded into half a pint of milk and given twice a day in a bran mash could set a ewe on her hooves after a difficult birth.

Brockdish Hall in Norfolk is one of several ancient places in England associated with the legend of the Mistletoe Bride. Long ago at Christmas tide the story goes, the hall was decked with holly and mistletoe for the wedding feast. The young wife of Lord Lovell grew tired of dancing and playfully proposed a game of hide-and-seek. Alas, after hours and then days of searching, neither her husband nor her friends could find the beautiful bride. Years later in a remote part of the house, the lid of an oak chest was raised and there lay a female skeleton, a mistletoe bridal wreath lying across her bony hands.

 

References

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

The Wildlife Trusts

Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey, Vintage Publishing, 1996

 

December 2023

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