PUBLISHED: 10:10 18 December 2015
It's as Christmassy as mince pies and panto, but Liz Hamilton of Herts' Campaign to Protect Rural England finds the hanging of mistletoe in winter has its roots deep in pagan beliefs
Among the plants associated with Christmas, mistletoe is perhaps the strangest. The white-berried plant (our native mistletoe has the Latin name Viscum album) is partly parasitic, putting down roots in the branches of trees, not soil, and taking up water and nutrients from the host. The plant is also dioecious, having male and female flowers on separate plants, an unusual botanical characteristic, although familiar to gardeners) meaning plants of both sexes need to grow close together to produce fruit. More conventionally, mistletoe’s green leaves produce energy by photosynthesis, in common with most plants.
Giver of life
In the pre-Christian northern Europe world, evergreen foliage symbolised eternal life, especially significant at mid-winter when vitality in the natural world seems to ebb away. Bringing holly, ivy, mistletoe and other evergreen leaves inside at this time of year represented the promise of renewal of life with the beginning of the new year.
The Roman writer Pliny the Elder described rituals involving mistletoe practiced by the Druids of Celtic tribes in Gaul, where the plant grew in sacred oak groves. Whether similar rituals took place in Britain is not recorded. When the Roman world converted to Christianity, the mid-winter festival of Saturnalia, which featured holly, a plant sacred to Saturn, and other evergreens, was transformed into the celebration of Christmas.
Around 20 species of mistletoe grow across Europe, Asia and Africa, where ancient cultures believed it had magical properties, perhaps because of its unusual growth habit with large balls of mistletoe appearing unsupported and capable of independent life in the crowns of trees. The plant was believed to protect against death, ward off evil spirits and witchcraft, and cure numerous ailments including epilepsy. Mistletoe’s distinctive arrangement of leaves and berries was also thought to bestow fertility on people and their crops.
In Britain, typical host trees are hawthorn, poplar, lime and especially apple. It is rare in oak trees except in a few places such as Epping Forest in Essex, and also rare in conifers, although in parts of Europe a different mistletoe species grows on this species. Found in most English counties (but rare in Scotland and absent from Ireland), mistletoe is most abundant in the counties bordering Wales, where it enjoys the mild and damp climate. At Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire, commercial mistletoe auctions attract dealers from all over the country. In Hertfordshire, mistletoe is frequently found in old parkland growing in lime trees (a hardy hardwood species not to be confused with the familiar citrus fruit).
In areas of medieval England where mistletoe was common, a variety of mistletoe traditions were practiced to keep witchcraft and misfortune at bay. In some areas, it was the custom to cut a bough of mistletoe at midwinter and to hang it in the home all year, until replaced by a fresh branch 12 months later. Due to these associations, in some parishes mistletoe was banned from the church, although it is said that mistletoe was accepted on to the altar at York Minster on Christmas Eve.
Kissing under the mistletoe probably has its origins In Scandinavia, brought to Britain by the Vikings. In Norse mythology, the god of peace, Balder, was killed by an arrow of mistletoe wood, but restored to life at the request of the other deities. Thereafter, mistletoe represented peace and love. In the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a surge of interest in pre-Christian druidism and Norse mythology, which popularised mistletoe as a Christmas decoration and reinvented the custom of kissing under its foliage.
Food for thought
The seeds of the plant, which are coated in a glue-like substance that sticks to tree branches where they may germinate, are spread by birds. including the eponymous mistle thrush. Winter visitors including redwing, waxwing and fieldfare, are also attracted to the white berries, the only native British plant species with berries this colour. Another bird that enjoys mistletoe berries is the blackcap. Britain’s resident blackcaps migrate south in the winter, but during recent milder winters blackcaps from colder continental Europe, especially Germany, have started to visit Britain and feed on mistletoe berries. These birds may be the reason the plant is spreading in some parts of the UK, as they are especially good at wiping the seeds off their beaks as they eat the berries, leaving them on branches where they can flourish.
Grow your own
It is relatively easy to grow mistletoe by attaching seeds to branches of suitable trees using their natural stickiness. Apple trees are a good choice. It is best to store berries from Christmas-bought mistletoe in the light (kept in the dark they will die) until February, the best time for them to germinate, before extracting the seeds from the berries and sticking them to a branch. By planting a number of seeds, you are more likely to end up with the male and female plants needed to produce berries.
Remember to ask permission from the landowner before cutting mistletoe from host trees. Alternatively, you can buy and store berries bought from a shop or market. You can even buy grow-your-own kits on the internet – try mistletoe.org.uk
Visit cpreherts.org.uk to find out how CPRE works to protect our county’s countryside.