PETER FROST finds a winter plant with more than its share of magic and mystery.
It is a misty late autumn morning deep in the Malvern Hills. The watery sun is painting the nearly leafless trees with a golden light. The river Teme glitters brightly as it rushes to join the Severn.Hanging in those trees, glistening like great golden globes are the many mistletoe clumps. These old cider orchards, and their golden bonus, are an important part of the countryside here on the Worcestershire, Shropshire borders.
It isn’t hard to see why mistletoe got the name the golden bough, or hard to see how people thought it magic. Bright green and gold sprouting among the barren branches, they are the essence of new life springing from old in deepest winter.
No wonder that in 1922 Scottish>anthropologist Sir James George Frazer chose the Golden Bough, the mistletoe bush as the title for his huge and definitive book on magic, superstition and religion.
Today that magic continues and the mistletoe bough is a romantic part of our mid-winter holiday celebrations. Hung up among the seasonal decorations it offers the chance to steal a kiss from the one you love.
Mistletoe has long held a special place in mid-winter customs. Despite its popularity it is still sometimes considered to be a pagan plant by the Christian church and is banned from church decorations.
Other religions have tried to claim the plant as their own. According to Pliny druid priests worshipped mistletoe.
They would climb the tree to harvest it, cutting it with a golden sickle, let it fall naturally to be caught before it touched the ground. If it did reach the earth it would lose its special powers.
The superstition that mistletoe should never touch the ground lives on even today.
These may be romantic stories but there is nothing vaguely romantic in the origin of the plant’s name. The word mistletoe is derived from two Anglo-Saxon words. Mistel, meaning poo, dung, or perhaps even shit. Tan or tang means a twig or tree branch.
So, literally, it’s shit on a tree. The Latin scientific name (Viscum album) tells a similar story. Viscum comes from the same root as viscous, meaning sticky, while album means white. So if you have romance in mind I’d stick to calling it mistletoe.<
Mistletoe starts its complicated life cycle when the sticky berries are eaten by a bird, often a mistlethrush or blackcap. They quickly pass through the bird and are excreted with much of their sticky coating still attached.
The bird is usually sat on a tree and the seeds, coated in poo, stick to the bark. If that tree is an old apple, hawthorn, lime or poplar we are in business and a new plant starts to grow.
The plant is a partial parasite, it sends a root under the bark into its host and gathers nutrients there.
Herbalists have long used mistletoe as a medicinal herb. The berries, although poisonous have been employed for centuries to reduce nervous disorders and epilepsy.
Mistletoe is widely used in alternative medicine. Rudolf Steiner claimed mistletoe in homeopathic dilutions could help cancer patients. Modern science seems to dismiss this, but millions of euros are spent on the remedies in Europe.
Eating any part of the plant particularly the leaves or berries or drinking a tea from the plant is dangerous and can result in sickness and even death. Mistletoe ingestion needs immediate medical attention.
If you want to hang the golden bough in your house for mid-winter, Christmas or the Pagan Druid Solstice, or just to get a snog, please get you mistletoe from a sustainable commercial grower.
Do not collect it from the wild as this very special plant is in decline and needs all the protection it can get. It is magic, you know.
Thanks a Bunch
The town of Tenbury Wells in the Malvern Hills has made itself the mistletoe capital of Britain. This year they held their Mistletoe Festival on various dates from 22 November to early December. Frosty went along to one of the three Mistletoe auctions held in the town on the run up to Christmas.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 20 December 2013