Our festive edition of ‘Thoughts’ has introduced a truly unusual winter berry – the azerole – but what of the more familiar, though certainly not edible, berries of winter? We love the decorative mistletoe (viscum album), it's name from Old English misteltãn, it's season about to begin, the archetypal symbol of romance at Christmas.
The rounded lacy mass (known as a haustorium) of tear-shaped leaves on pretty forked stems, is a familiar sight in our winter orchards and ancient woodlands. It is a fascinating plant, hemiparasitic, the mistletoe sends fungal tips that penetrate the tree’s tissue to reap water and mineral nutrients from its host. It sounds far from romantic for the tree, but it rarely does significant damage (unless the tree is already stressed from disease or unusually dry weather) and a recent study involving the removal of mistletoe from deciduous woodland, demonstrated a serious and detrimental impact upon biodiversity, particularly bird life.* So it seems that the mistletoe’s evergreen growth, smothered in white berries from winter to spring, is justifiably a symbol of continuing ‘life’ through the cold months, invested with notions of fertility and vitality by ancient cultures. For the Druids, there were winter solstice rituals taking golden sickles to the mistletoe on sacred oaks; the Ancient Greeks used it as a potent symbol in mythology, Aeneas’ ‘golden bough’ is widely thought to be the European mistletoe; and Norse legend gave us sacred associations with fertility, chastity and devotion that continued through the Middle Ages.
The furtive kiss under the mistletoe then has its roots in those ancient legends, but appears to have begun in earnest late in 18th century England, initially among the serving classes but gradually engaging all strata of society to become a favourite subject of early Victorian Christmas cards and part of the winter bounty of festive decorations. The tradition has an enduring and innocent charm, but there is a little-known etiquette for a mistletoe embrace, another Victorian addition to its power in romantic and festive matters: as the recipient under the mistletoe receives her kiss on the cheek, one berry should be removed from the mistletoe sprig. Once all the berries are gone the power of the mistletoe is spent and no more kissing can take place. So be careful when buying your sprig this year and ensure it is laden with berries.
We will deck Thyme’s halls with holly and ivy this December, but will not neglect the mistletoe’s pretty little sprigs, it is such an enduring part of our landscape (mistletoe is highly toxic so take care when using in decorative displays). During the 1990s there were a series of plant surveys that revealed that the Southwest midlands, the Gloucestershire Cotswolds in particular, held the highest concentration of mistletoe in the UK. Tenbury Wells (in the neighbouring county of Worcestershire) is the location of the last remaining mistletoe auctions, once common in market towns across the country. So when staying at Thyme this season, take a walk in the winter landscape and give a little thought to the intricacies of the mistletoe, its enduring place in our countryside festivities, and perhaps steal a kiss or two while you are there.
*study conducted by ecologist, David M Watson, ‘Mistletoe as Keystone Resource’ 2012