Mistletoe for luck

By Tamsin Westhorpe

For centuries mistletoe has played a part in our Christmas festivities.

This parasitic plant that commonly grows in the branches of apple and poplar trees, like many of us isn’t having a good year! I live a stone’s throw from the market town of Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire which Queen Victoria once described as “my little town in the orchard.” Those who have visited the area will know that the orchards are dripping in mistletoe. It is in this idyllic town that there is an annual mistletoe auction – but not this year. Due to the pandemic, it was cancelled for the first time in over 150 years.

My uncle removing a bunch of mistletoe from a heavily burdened apple tree.

Although few of us will be kissing under the mistletoe this year there is still good reason to use it as a natural Christmas decoration. This plant is steeped in myth and mystery and for centuries it has been hung in our homes to keep evil spirits away and bring good luck (if ever we needed good luck it’s now). It has also been praised as a plant that promotes good fertility and romance, hence the tradition of kissing underneath it. In Tudor times a berry would be removed from the mistletoe every time someone was kissed – I love this idea.

All that’s needed for a perfect Christmas – snow and mistletoe!

In early December, my sister and I decided to harvest some of the mistletoe in our cider orchard to sell in aid of a local charity. There are many species of mistletoe but the one that is native to the UK isViscum album. This plant is either male or female, but it is the female that carries the all-important berries that resemble pearls from the ocean. Once harvested we spent a few happy hours bunching up the mistletoe and discussing what to charge for it. In Herefordshire and Worcestershire, it’s tricky to sell as the trees are loaded down with perfect bunches – it’s not in short supply. As we tied our bunches with very cold fingers, we considered how much a bunch would fetch in London? A pretty penny I would imagine.

How much would you pay for a bunch?

I’m often asked if mistletoe is bad for the trees it lives in. It won’t kill a tree, but it will weaken it so if your favourite apple tree looks under strain then removing a few bunches of mistletoe will be in its favour. The berries of the mistletoe provide food for birds so it’s a wonderful addition to a wildlife garden – in fact I have hung a bunch in the tree by my bird table as a festive treat for my feathered friends and something festive to look at from the kitchen window. It’s the mistle thrush that particularly enjoys the sticky berries. To remove the gluey mess from its beak after eating, the mistle thrush wipes its beak on a branch and the seed is then left resting in the branches. In about three to four years a small mistletoe plant will appear in a suitable host tree as a result of this dropped seed. Mistletoe in Anglo Saxon translates to ‘dung on a stick’ – a name given to it as all the branches where it grew were so covered in bird poo!

Preparing for our charity mistletoe sale.

I’m hoping that this time next year the mistletoe will return as a popular natural Christmas decoration. Yes, the berries are poisonous so should be kept out of reach from children and pets, but I adore the idea of bringing the outside in during the winter. Having a plant in your home with such a great back story has got to be far more exciting than tinsel. Happy Christmas.

After you have cut your mistletoe hang in a cool room in the house for a long-lasting display.

Tamsin Westhorpe

With over 25 years’ experience in the horticultural industry, Tamsin has plenty of practical, hands on advice to share. Her career has seen her edit The English Garden magazine for six years, write scripts for TV gardening, lecture at Kingston Maurward College in Dorset and care for parks and gardens. She is now a freelance writer and curator and gardener of Stockton Bury Gardens, Herefordshire (listed by The Times in the top 20 gardens to visit July 2017). Tamsin is also an RHS Chelsea Flower Show Judge, co-Chair of The Garden Media Guild and a prolific speaker at many high profile events. She has recently written her first book ‘Diary of a Modern Country Gardener’ published by Orphans Publishing and is the voice of the popular Candide Gardening podcast ‘Fresh from the pod’.

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