4 November 2017

Mistletoe – Festive Favorite on the Decline

Kissing under the mistletoe has been a tradition since Victorian times in England and before that in other countries. When the railway arrived in the UK, this yuletide habit spread from southern England to the north and beyond. The chances are if you are offered a seasonal kiss then the person making the offer may well be waving a bunch of it over your head.

The legends around mistletoe go back further than a few centuries – it has always been associated with fecundity and the winter solstice. The white fruit has a parallel with human reproduction which is impossible to avoid – and one of its favorite hosts, the apple tree, is also a favorite among people.

The seed of the mistletoe arrives on the branches of the tree via dung spread by birds which have previously eaten the fruit. The mistle thrush loves the fruit as does the blackcap. In fact the German words for dung (mist) and branch (niederlassung) are thought to have given the plant its name.

Mistletoe a hemi-parasite which means that it gets some of its sustenance from the host plant and it grows both on and inside the branches of it. The act of photosynthesis, however, is conducted by the mistletoe itself, through its gorgeously evergreen leaves. If eaten the white berries can cause diarrhoea and sickness but is unlikely to kill which some popular legends suggest. The ancient tradition of kissing under the mistletoe comes originally from a Norse legend.

Yet there may be trouble ahead for this festive favorite. All is not what it should be in the world of the mistletoe. The harvest this year in the UK is plentiful but there is a threat hanging over, as it were, the future of this captivating and redolent plant.

The threat is a strange one indeed – cider. Until recently hundreds of small orchards in the UK supplied fruit to any number of cider makers. Yet the more recent adoption of industrialised apple production veers from traditional methods. However, it is a substantially cheaper method and the old orchards have become derelict and the mistletoe left to run rampant and uncontrolled.

For now the mistletoe grows in abundance and its berries and bright green foliage is resplendent on the apple trees of England. However, should the orchards remain untended the mistletoe will ultimately kill its host. If there are no apple trees and that could mean that in the future there will not be any mistletoe either.

Mistletoe is going to appear in apple orchards which are cultivated traditionally – there is no chance that it will not, it just happens. Many farmers put up with it and harvest it as a second crop in the winter. There isn’t any need to propagate it either – left to its own devices it will flourish. Yet intensive farming does not suffer the presence of a hemi-parasite and it is removed.

Mistletoe is not unique to the apple tree, of course, but it is a favorite host for the plant. As more and more orchards fall from use there may well be a severe long term impact. There has been a massive 60 percent drop in orchards producing apples using time honoured and long established methods over the last four decades in the UK.

Yet many people have failed to notice the decline of the home grown mistletoe. Little wonder – there is rarely a country of origin label on mistletoe. A great deal of it now is transported in from mainland Europe, particularly France even though traditional orchards are on the decline there too.

So, certainly in the UK, mistletoe might not be as ubiquitous in the future as it is now. The burgeoning popularity of cider may well put paid to this festive favorite and people may soon have to find something else under which to kiss.