Monday, 16 December 2013

Christmas time, mistletoe and wine

Emily Nobbs, Wildlife Information Service

Whilst trying to source some mistletoe sprigs to decorate my new home this Christmas, I started thinking, what actually led people to start hanging mistletoe in the doorways of their homes at Christmas? So I have done some digging about the origin of mistletoe traditions, as well as the best way to grow your own.

Mistletoe, photo by Elizabeth Dack
The origin of the mistletoe tradition
During the Middle Ages mistletoe was regarded as a holy magical plant, rooting higher than any other plant to Heaven. It was known to ward off evil spirits, and later earned the reputation as a healing herb. Kissing under its branch began in the 17th Century, when people believed it would fix broken hearts. This beautiful plant continues to be a symbol of new life and the approaching spring to many. Today, all over the World at Christmas people exchange kisses beneath this white berried plant, picking one for each kiss.

Where and when to see mistletoe

You can find this plant growing wild, usually living in branches of, willows, lime, ash and poplars. In Britain mistletoes favourite host is cultivated apple, with around 50% growing on the tree. In Norfolk the commonest host tree for mistletoe is apple trees, followed by lime and then poplar. Mistletoe has not been recorded on ash or oak in the county since 1866. 

Mistletoe on Limes, photo by David Gittens
The best place to see mistletoe in Norfolk is in The Walks in Kings Lynn, between November and March when the trees are bare.


Grown your own

If you want to try your hand at home growing, first you must collect the mistletoe berries in February or early March, not at Christmas! Next crunch the berries and smear them into a young live tree branch (at least 1.5 metres high and 20mm in diameter). Try to smear the plant on a shady part of the branch, for example the underside of a branch; in the wild this is done by mistle thrushes and other birds which are fond of eating the mistletoe berries but discard the seeds by wiping their bills on a convenient branch, spreading the mistletoe from tree to tree. Mistletoe will grow on certain tree species as mentioned earlier, apple trees seem especially receptive. Hawthorn, lime, poplar, whitebeam, pear, field maple and ash are also suitable trees to try.

Mistletoe is not for those of you who wish to see growth results quickly; this species requires patience, as it can often take a few years before the first mistletoe leaves appear.

Top Tips
  • If you picked your berries and stored them somewhere dry prior to smearing you must re-hydrate them by leaving them in water for a couple of hours before spreading them.
  • Mark the sport you smeared your seed! That way you will know where you put it and can watch it grow.
Remember while mistletoe does not kill trees it is partially parasitic so we recommend that you don’t plant it on your best fruit tree! Once it's established you can harvest some each year and both the mistletoe and the host tree should survive for decades.

Please send any mistletoe records to the local records centre, Norfolk Biodiversity Information Service (NBIS) at Norfolk County Council. Please use the four recording Ws - What, Where, When and Who - when submitting a record.
Post - Norfolk Biodiversity Information Service, R301 County Hall, Martineau Lane, Norwich, NR1 2SG. Telephone - 01603 224458. Email - enquiries.nbis@norfolk.gov.uk

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