Last week a friend told me how one large oak tree near her house was still covered in brown leaves, glowing golden in the late afternoon sunlight. It must be in a sheltered spot, or perhaps it has inherited a tenacious gene! Whatever the explanation, I guess it’s bare now! Our oak lost its leaves about a month ago and, looking out at its tracery of sturdy boughs and reflecting on the season, my thoughts, of course, turn to mistletoe – a plant that has become such an important part of Christmas.
Growing in lime-green leafy balls in oak, apple and many other trees, it’s actually only semi-parasitic. It can photosynthesise, its green leaves using sunlight and carbon-dioxide to make sugars. It has to rely on its host for water and minerals and, therefore, can restrict the host’s growth or, I suppose, kill it altogether if it spreads too much. Inside the creamy white berries each seed has a sticky coating so that any bird enjoying the feast spreads the seeds not just through its droppings but also by wiping its beak against a convenient branch. The seeds adhere and settle in to make new plants. It’s an important food source for many birds; the ‘mistle’ thrush got its name from its taste for the fruit and many other species rely on it. It’s worrying that apple orchards are disappearing fast and with them Britain’s main mistletoe habitat, and a centre for the knowledge of how to propagate and manage it.
When you see mistletoe growing – mysteriously spring-green amid winter branches – it’s easy to see why it figures in so much ancient myth and folklore. The druids, to whom oak trees were especially important, saw it as a mystical plant, its berries having the power to relieve barrenness (they’d actually make you feel rather ill!). Mistletoe features in Norse mythology: the god, Baldur, otherwise immortal, being killed by an arrow tipped with its wood. Some sources also suggest the custom of kissing under the mistletoe derives from association with the Norse goddess of love, Frigga. It was certainly going strong when I was a girl, though I don’t recall the original custom whereby a berry was plucked each time a kiss was claimed until berries and licence-to-kiss ran out together. Perhaps mistletoe’s less necessary in these uninhibited times, but let’s agree, birds would certainly miss it.