Britain's Mistletoe Under Threat

By Emma McNeil - 09 Dec 2010 8:50:0 GMT
Britain's Mistletoe Under Threat

Conservationists from England's National Trust are warning that future Christmases in Britain could have to go ahead without the traditional mistletoe kisses.

The National Trust is urging consumers to buy their mistletoe from British orchards with a sustainable supply of mistletoe to ensure that future generations can continue to enjoy the distinctive plant. Most British mistletoe comes from the South West of England, in cider country, and grows in traditional apple orchards. Unfortunately, in the last 60 years there has been a 60% decline in these orchards across Britain. With this habitat loss there has been a decrease in the growth and sale of British mistletoe. The supply is so diminished that much of the mistletoe on sale in shops before recent Christmases has been imported from abroad.

Mistletoe is a parasitic plant, and while it thrives on fruit trees it can also be found on other hosts such a lime, poplar and hawthorn trees. With its winter berries, mistletoe is an important source of food for birds such as the blackcap and mistlethrush during the colder months. Mistletoe also has six specialist insects that rely on the plant for their survival. The plant has been the subject of much folklore and superstition in Northern Europe. Mistletoe has been thought to represent virility, romance and fertility and with its pretty winter berries and greenery became a popular Christmas decoration. The tradition of kissing under mistletoe may come from Norse mythology. The goddess, Frigga, wept tears like pearls onto the mistletoe in gratitude at her son's resurrection. She insisted that the plant should never be used for evil and that whenever two people met under the mistletoe they should kiss to celebrate her son's survival.

In 2009 the National Trust launched an initiative to try and bring back traditional orchards, cider making and the associated mistletoe. These orchards, many of them community-run, are allowing mistletoe to flourish again in the right conditions. Mistletoe expert, Jonathan Briggs explained the importance of close management of orchards growing mistletoe: "Mistletoe benefits from management. Unchecked, it will swamp its host tree and ultimately cause it to die. Regular, managed cropping will ensure that the host tree remains productive while ensuring that a healthy population of mistletoe will persist".

This Christmas, as people decorate their homes and offices for the festive season the National Trust hopes that people will remember the mistletoe and ask for sustainable, British grown mistletoe: "Mistletoe is part of our Christmas heritage and has a special place in a wonderful winter landscape. It would be a sad loss if mistletoe disappeared all together from its heartland. We could end up relying on imports of mistletoe from mainland Europe for those festive kisses."

Top Image: © National Trust