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Mistletoe: a Christmas Friend or Foe?

'The Mistletoe Seller', by Myles Birket Foster from 'The London Illustrated News', 1854


As I now live in Herefordshire, surrounded by apple orchards mostly supplying the local cider industry, it occurred to me to write something during this Christmas and New Year period about mistletoe – which grows high up in trees I can see from my windows.  Poplars in this case, although the apple trees in the area drip with bauble-like clumps of this parasitic plant. 

 

As there's a huge amount of information about mistletoe and its related myths and legends available on the web and elsewhere, I’ve taken a look at this plant through the lens of my favourite resource, the Victorian horticultural press. And as I'm writing about mistletoe in Herefordshire, the worthy Victorian gentlemen of the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club (based in Hereford, and responsible for The Herefordshire Pomona I wrote about recently) haven't let me down. And I must say, I'm becoming quite a fan... even though they didn't formally admit women as full Members until 1954!


'Viscum album' from 'Flora von Deutschland, Osterreich und der Schweiz', 1885


Mistletoe in Herefordshire


As well as appearing in the horticultural press, articles about mistletoe also feature in the Woolhope Club's journal, Transactions. In particular, in 1864, Dr. Henry Bull (Club founder and an early President) published a lengthy article titled ‘The Mistletoe (Viscum Album, L.) in Herefordshire' in which he includes a list of trees that support mistletoe.


‘The Mistletoe (Viscum Album, L.) in Herefordshire', by Henry Bull, M.D. From 'The Transactions of the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club' reprinted in 'The Journal of Botany', 1864 


Just like today, mistletoe's favourite hosts were, of course, apple trees – Bull writing that there was “scarcely an orchard of any standing without it”, although in many it grew “far too luxuriantly”.  Bull also quotes a county study that concluded that when mistletoe occurred in moderation it neither injured the trees, nor the fruit – and in trees of apples such as the famed Foxwhelp, Old Cowarne Red and the Redstreak, there was scarcely a tree, old or young, not inhabited by it.  He was also of the opinion that, next to the apple, poplars were liked best by mistletoe. However, and despite the study, Bull agreed with the generally held opinion that mistletoe was detrimental to trees.

Bull also mentions mistletoe growing in oak trees, the so-called mistletoe-oaks so beloved of the ancient Druids. And he quotes an earlier source which stated that such oaks were quite rare, even back then, which is probably why they were so symbolic and treated with respect, and even reverence. It's also thought that many such old mistletoe-oaks were destroyed when the Druids were suppressed by the Romans and later supplanted by Christianity.


Herefordshire's Mistletoe-Oaks


Another interesting fact about mistletoe in Herefordshire is that, while apple and other trees laden with mistletoe in the county are numerous, most oaks hosting mistletoe are also concentrated here. In 2000, The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland published research [see Note 1] into mistletoe-oaks which stated that only 11 confirmed specimens exist in the UK, with trees ranging in age from 90 to 400 years [see below]. Past evidence also suggesting that the rarity of mistletoe-oaks in Britain probably hasn’t changed much since the 17th century.  


'Confirmed existing Mistletoe-Oaks in Britain' from the article 'Mistletoe, Viscum Album L. (Loranthaceae) on Oaks in Britain' by J.D. Box, Shropshire. From 'Watsonia', 23 (2000)



A total of only 11 known trees does seem an extraordinarily small number, but this may well change in the future. The Tree Council is currently [November 2023 to February 2024] undertaking a ‘citizen science’ project to record mistletoe growing on trees generally throughout the UK.  However, whether they will record mistletoe-oaks specifically is not mentioned on their website [see Note 2].

 

Back in the mid-1800's however, the gentlemen of the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club were keen to record Herefordshire’s remarkable trees, and mistletoe-oaks feature in many of their published articles. The Eastnor mistletoe-oak, mentioned in the table above, even appears in the Club’s Transactions along with the accompanying photograph shown below.


'The Mistletoe-Oak at Eastnor' [near Ledbury, Herefordshire]. From 'The Transactions of the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club', April 1867


A later article in The Garden, in December 1887, provides some history about this particular mistletoe-oak. Thought to be one of the “few authentic instances of the common Mistletoe growing spontaneously on the Oak in England”, it had been found back in 1837 by Eastnor's then Head Gardener, Mr. Moss, growing in the grounds of the estate. This oak had apparently had several large plants of mistletoe growing on it for some 15 years but was, according to Moss, the only one, as he'd searched through the estate’s oak woods and other plantations.  And so, The Garden reported, it was thought noteworthy enough to exhibit a branch from the oak, with mistletoe attached, at a meeting of the Royal Horticultural Society in London that year.


In 1889, Lady Henry Somerset of Eastnor Castle mentions this mistletoe-oak in her book about the estate, writing that the tree “often engaged the attention of botanists, as [an oak bearing mistletoe] is so rarely to be found in the present day”. Members of the Woolhope Club were among the visitors to Eastnor; their Transactions recording their visit in 1867 (when the photograph was taken) to see “a real live mistletoe-oak" as it was an object "of much rarity and deep interest”. The article also records how members “alighted from their vehicles”, and gathered around the tree “in various venerative attitudes” in “a state of semi-druidical inspiration”!


Members of the Woolhope Naturalists Field Club out on a trip. Date unknown. Courtesy Herefordshire County Museum


The Eastnor mistletoe-oak also features in The Gardeners Chronicle in July 1878. The article reporting that this particular tree was said to be around 100 years old at the time, although when the mistletoe first established itself was unknown.  It also gives details of the trade in mistletoe [see The Mistletoe Trade below].


Another article, published in the Woolhope Club’s Transactions in 1870, dealt with the mystery connected with the mistletoe’s parasitic growth “which gives to it so peculiar an interest to the Naturalist”. It’s known that the sticky white seeds of mistletoe, once deposited on branches by birds [often mistle thrushes], will germinate and start to grow – and the article includes 2 hand-drawn illustrations of this process. 


‘Notes on the Reproduction and Growth of Mistletoe’ by the Rev. R. Blight.  From 'The Transactions of the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club',1870


The Mistletoe Trade


The horticultural press is also a good source of facts and figures for the mistletoe trade during the Victorian period, although some views expressed in the articles are rather contradictory.  For example, in January 1874, The Gardeners’ Chronicle reported on cider-apple orchards and their management.  On the one hand, the author wrote, smaller and therefore sweeter fruit (said to make the strongest drink) was obtained from trees where mistletoe had been allowed to grow – while an article in The Garden a year earlier, also pointed out that some farmers thought it did no harm, and the apple crop from mistletoe-hosting apple trees did indeed make for the best cider. 


However, other commentators who viewed it as a weed, referring to its parasitical and damaging nature which shortened the life of the trees, thought it should be eradicated. As one article pointed out, tenant farmers could afford to think short-term and consider their enhanced annual profit from cider-making, whereas the owners of the land had the long-term health of their orchards to consider – as well as the longevity of the trees.


'A Mistletoe Gatherer'. From 'The Illustrated London News', December 1894


However, if you have orchards full of a plant seen as a pest but which is in demand by the buying public why not, as the author of the The Gardeners Chronicle article thought, make it pay "by consigning it to market”. The author referring to an article in the Malvern News (back in December 1860) which reported that “tons of Mistleto have been sent from [Hereford] by rail to London; and as we know, lots of barrels filled with the same mystic plant go every year northward from Worcester… as the counties of Worcester and Hereford probably nurse more Mistleto than any others in Britain”.  [At this time, mistletoe was often spelt without the ‘e’ on the end.]


'The Mistletoe Seller', by Phiz [see Note 3]. From 'The London Illustrated News', 1853


In July 1878, The Gardeners' Chronicle reported specifically about the mistletoe gathered from Eastnor Castle. Taken from apple and other trees it was, like the majority of Herefordshire mistletoe, “cut annually and sent away to London and the large towns in the North” in huge amounts. 


That particular November, collectors had commenced gathering early, continuing “quite up” to Christmas, and receiving £1 to £2 per ton from the dealers "delivered into truck or boat”


Bull’s article about Herefordshire mistletoe in the Club's Transactions (1864) also provides information relating to Herefordshire's export of mistletoe. Having obtained information “through the politeness of the traffic managers for the Great Western and London and North-Western Railways at Hereford”, Bull wrote that a total of 89 tons were sent by rail from the county during December the previous year (1863).  Although, he added, in addition most of the guards and engine-drivers had an unofficial 'side-line' in exporting mistletoe for their own account “and did so by almost every train that left the county during the early part of December”.


'The Mistletoe Gatherer' by Sir John Everett Millais, 1894


Bull was of the opinion that an immense quantity of such 'unofficial' mistletoe was sent out like this and, therefore, he'd probably greatly under-estimated the additional amount – perhaps some 25 tons, making a grand total of more than 114 tons.  Chief destinations were Manchester and Liverpool (and towns further north), as well as London and Birmingham.  The price paid for the mistletoe was pushed up to some £5 to £6 10s per ton after transit and delivery charges were added.


An approximation of the amount of mistletoe sent out from Herefordshire in December 1863.  From Bull’s article, ‘The Mistletoe (Viscum Album, L.) in Herefordshire'. From 'The Transactions of the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club', 1864


The Mistletoe’s Point of View


One article in the horticultural press that particularly caught my eye was an article dated December 23, 1882. Printed on the front page of The Gardeners Chronicle, the unnamed author had written from the mistletoe's point of view – even signing off the article Viscum Album, its Latin name. Obviously a Victorian horticulturalist with a sense of humour!


The mistletoe thought that “at one time you take great pains to find me, cherish me, and make much of me”, no doubt harking back to a time when it was treated with respect by the Druids, while at other times you "call me bad names" – such as parasitic and poisonous, and when often described, at least in the Victorian press, as a "degenerate" plant.


'The Druids: Bringing in the Mistletoe' by George Henry and Edward Atkinson Hornel, 1890.  Courtesy Glasgow Life Museums

The mistletoe also bemoaned the fact that instead of “gathering me with solemn, respectful ceremonial” [as can be seen in this painting of Druids collecting mistletoe], it was wrenched brutally from the trees on which it grew, stuffed into wooden crates, and hurried onto the decks of steamers or thrust into railway cars – and finally bundled “with scant ceremony into a costermonger’s barrow, or into a greengrocer’s shop”.  Mistletoe was also hawked around the Victorian streets, as shown in images in this post.


After all, as the mistletoe pointed out, it had to work for its living – helping to feed thrushes and other birds, while also doing us a good turn especially at Christmas.  It also asked why, if it was “so very degenerate”, it was in such demand?  After all, "you not only buy me as I am, but you buy me, Apple tree and all…”


'The Gardeners’ Chronicle', December 23, 1882

The article's author was making a good point. Around this time the horticultural press regularly carried adverts from nurseries offering ‘Apple Trees with Mistleto’.  In 1878 for example, the cost of such trees was advertised at between 3s 6d or 5s each. A year later, The Garden mentions that "in Hereford and other Apple-growing counties, considerable trouble and expense are annually incurred in ridding the pest of Mistletoe from the trees” – although some, such as nurseryman, Mr. Smith of Worcester, “turn curses into blessings” by inducing mistletoe “to establish itself on fine young Apple trees”, and then selling them at prices from 7s to one guinea each.


The Garden also noted that it was a good idea of Mr. Smith's to sell apple trees laden with mistletoe as it was certainly “a novelty in the north of England, and more so in Scotland where it is sometimes cultivated as an interesting object on a lawn”. [I've been unable to find any additional information about this Scottish idiosyncrasy!]


In December 1888, The Garden even suggested that, rather than buying mistletoe-laden apple trees, some "amateurs" who had an orchard would cultivate mistletoe themselves as "a tree with the plant growing amongst the branches is exceedingly picturesque” – and presumably could also be turned to a profit. The article also suggests the best way to propagate it by selecting a gnarled bough of, for preference, an apple tree, and pressing mistletoe berries into a notch, or into a cut slit on the underside of a branch.


An article a few years later in The Gardeners’ Chronicle, in December 1890, sympathised with the mistletoe rather dramatically.  The unnamed author writing that he had, for some years, raised his voice “against the wholesale slaughter of the innocent Holly and Mistletoe at Christmastide” – noting that this year it seemed earlier and more extensive than usual.  “For the past week”, he wrote, "throughout the rural districts, the woods, copses, and hedgerows have been alive with Christmas raiders, legitimate and otherwise, and tons and truckloads have been and are being dispatched in all directions”.


Victorian Christmas Card showing local people gathering mistletoe


So what did the mistletoe think about all this? Despite it’s bad treatment it did think that at least we appreciated it at Christmas time. And it was even aware of its romantic side – sympathising with “your heart throbs, and your whisperings, and your wooings”. Kissing under the mistletoe probably goes back to ancient times, and became popular in the UK in the 18th century. But it was the Victorians that really embraced it, and it became yet another Victorian Christmas tradition which is still with us today.


Victorian couple kissing under the mistletoe and, right, 'Hanging the Mistletoe' by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christmas 1860


Today, nearby Tenbury Wells, just over the border into Worcestershire, has the only specialist mistletoe market in the UK but, in the past, almost every market town in the mistletoe-rich part of Worcestershire and Herefordshire played a part in supplying the country. Described by Queen Victoria after a visit as "my little town in the orchard", Tenbury Wells describes itself as "the capital of English mistletoe". It holds an annual Christmas mistletoe Festival, while its mistletoe auctions have been running for around 160 years.


While not exactly a fan of mistletoe, Dr. Bull did concede the contrary opinions that existed about it, writing that whoever tried to come up with the right answer as to the mistletoe’s adverse or beneficial effects would have “to master the confusion that prevails amongst the Apple-trees themselves, and the ignorance of their owners…always excepting, however, the knowledge of the quality of the cider they will make”.


The health of apple trees and quality of cider aside, mistletoe has become an integral part of our Christmas traditions – whether for kissing under, or simply decorating our homes. And so, whether it's loved or cursed, I think the mistletoe can be confident that it will be around for many more years to come...


Mistletoe auction, Burford House, Tenbury Wells



Notes:


1. From the article 'Mistletoe, Viscum Album L. (Loranthaceae) on Oaks in Britain' by J.D. Box, Shropshire. From Watsonia, 23 (2000), the journal of The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland. This article mentions that a survey in the 1990’s, with input from both botanists and the general public, put the number of sightings of mistletoe on oak trees at some 140 but acknowledged that many were probably misidentified.  The number 11 is, currently, still the number most often mentioned.



3. Hablot Knight Browne (1815-1882), famous for illustrations under the name 'Phiz', including those in books by Charles Dickens.


References:


'Trading Mistletoe in the 1860's' by Jonathan Briggs, November 2022 - Badgers trading mistletoe in the 1860s – Jonathan's Mistletoe Diary

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2 comentarios


Invitado
07 feb

Seems you are studying past Love gardens and raising plants . I too Yours Sir Kevin Parr Bt

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Invitado
08 ene

Fascinating, especially about the Woolhope people! Thanks so much

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