Roy Vickery, botanist and Museum Scientific Associate and longtime ‘friend’ of the Wildlife Garden, has been collecting plant stories for many years. Roy tells us more about mistletoe myths:
“Pliny the Elder in the first century A.D. described druids in France cutting mistletoe from oak trees in a ritual which involved golden sickles, dressing in white cloaks, slaughtering white bulls. Because of this, mistletoe was considered to be a pagan plant and banned from churches.”
But what is the origin of our seasonal fascination for this plant?
“Mistletoe was associated with Christmas since the mid-17th Century. By the 19th Century this association was well established, and people who had mistletoe-bearing trees on their land were bothered by people who raided them. In 1876 it was recorded that one Lincolnshire landowner hired 14 'watchers' each year to protect the mistletoe in her park.
“Kissing under the mistletoe seems to be a tradition which originated in the British Isles, but it does not appear to be an ancient one. It seems that it developed from the kissing bough which decorated homes in medieval times. This consisted of a bunch of evergreens, or a number of intersecting hoops covered in evergreens, which was hung from the ceiling, and under which people kissed. At sometime, probably in the late 18th or early 19th Century, mistletoe became an important component of these boughs, and eventually, by the mid-19th Century, the other greenery seems to have become of secondary importance, with the mistletoe becoming essential. Certainly, as numerous illustrations show, the association of kissing and mistletoe was well established by Victorian times.
“The situation is complicated by the fact that in some areas there were decorations known as 'mistletoe boughs' which appear to be identical to the kissing boughs and contained no mistletoe.
“It is sometimes said that a berry should be removed every time anyone kisses under the mistletoe.
“There are various beliefs about what should be done with mistletoe once Christmas has passed. In some areas some was kept indoors throughout the year to ensure happiness, love, food and money throughout the year. In other places, Christmas mistletoe was burnt under the pancake pan on Shrove Tuesday.
“Mistletoe doesn't seem to have been much used in folk medicine. The only remedy which I've collected is from Somerset, where it was remembered that a vile-tasting tea, made from mistletoe which grew on hawthorn, was used to treat measles. Other people have collected information on mistletoe being used to treat hysteria in Herefordshire and prevent strokes in Essex.”
In the meantime we are watching out for the mistletoe plant dispersers. Mistle thrush is a rare visitor to the Wildlife Garden but the blackcap is now more commonly seen - and has been observed in the garden throughout 2012.
Posted on behalf of Caroline who is currently on annual leave.