Along with holly and ivy, using bunches of evergreen mistletoe in homes at Christmas is an age-old tradition.
Putting it over a lintel was an ancient custom designed to ward off witches and spirits – there’s an old Welsh saying ‘No mistletoe, no luck’. However, the practice of kissing under the mistletoe is thought to date from Victorian times.
Mistletoe’s mystical roots date back to the Druids, who believed it was sacred and an important medicinal plant. It was a mentioned in ‘Culpeper’s Herbal’ in 1653 and today is being used in the development of treatments for some forms of cancer.
The name comes from the Anglo Saxon meaning dung on a twig, thanks to the once widely held belief that it was propagated through bird lime on trees. In fact, it’s birds, such as blackcaps, eating the berries and leaving the seeds on branches that helps it spread.
European mistletoe, Viscum album, has white berries, said to have been turned from red to white by the tears of Frigga in the Norse saga. In Spain, you can still see red-berried mistletoe. Only female plants carry berries and both male and female are needed for propagation, while the leaves can range from dark green to almost chartreuse yellow, known as ‘Golden Bough’.
The Cotswolds is one of the British strongholds for mistletoe, along with Herefordshire and Worcestershire, and during the winter large spheres of it are a common sight in the bare branches of trees in the area.
Apple trees are a favourite as their soft and fissured bark makes it easy for the semi-parasitic mistletoe to take hold. It gets most of its nutrients from the sap system of the host tree.
If it’s allowed to grow unchecked, it will eventually kill the tree and commercial orchards work hard to remove it from their trees.
When you are buying mistletoe for Christmas, look for bunches with plump berries and fresh foliage. It will keep for a couple of weeks after picking if put in a dark, cool place.
Then hang it from the doorway and bring a bit of romance into your Christmas festivities.