Give mistletoe the kiss of life! The National Trust launch a new campaign...
One of the traditional symbols of Christmas, mistletoe, may disappear from some areas of the British countryside in the next twenty years, warn naturalists.
The National Trust have launched a new campaign to encourage people to help secure the future of mistletoe in its heartland by buying sustainably sourced home-grown mistletoe in the run up to Christmas and the season of office parties. The campaign also encourages shoppers to ask where the mistletoe they are buying has come from.
The heartland for mistletoe is cider country – Somerset, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire – and this is where it has an uncertain future as its main habitat is traditional orchards, which have declined dramatically in the last sixty years.
Peter Brash, National Trust Ecologist, is urging Britons to think about where their mistletoe comes from: “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.”
Mistletoe is commonly found on fruit trees where it is relatively easy to harvest but can also be seen on other host trees such lime, poplar and hawthorn across a wider area of the UK. The best time to sow new mistletoe seeds on host trees is in February and March.
Mistletoe is a parasitic plant which prefers the domestic apple tree as its’ host. Data shows that mistletoe distribution is closely linked to that of lightly managed, traditional orchards, particularly in the most prolific mistletoe growing area of the South West and Midlands.
Traditional orchards have declined by at least sixty per cent since the 1950s (and by up to ninety per cent in Devon and Kent) and with them, an important habitat for the plant.
A project launched by the National Trust and Natural England in 2009 aims to reverse the loss of this habitat by restoring traditional orchards, supporting small cottage industries producing cider and juices and promoting the growth of community run orchards.
In recent years there has also been an increase in the sale of imported mistletoe from Europe, particularly from northern France. Leading mistletoe expert Jonathan Briggs, explained: “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.”
If mistletoe became more inaccessible because of an ongoing decline of traditional orchards and a loss of its main host, fruit trees, then it might become more a premium product with more scarce supply.
Mistletoe also plays an important role in supporting wildlife. It provides winter food for birds such as the blackcap and mistle thrush. It also supports a total of six specialist insects including the scarce mistletoe marble moth, some sap-sucking bugs and the affectionately named ‘kiss me slow weevil’ (Ixapion variegatum).
Peter Brash added: “Ensuring your mistletoe comes from a sustainably managed, British source is good news all round. You will be supporting a small home grown industry, while helping to ensure a future for mistletoe and the creatures that are dependent upon it. You’ll be kissing with a clear conscience this Christmas.”
In the UK mistletoe has long been associated with Christmas and mid-winter customs, probably dating way back into prehistory as a symbol of ongoing life in the winter months. The kissing custom is a very British version of those ancient traditions. Over the channel in France slightly different traditions evolved over time, with mistletoe seen as a good luck symbol at the New Year, rather than kissing at Christmas.
Try to ensure that the mistletoe you buy is British and sustainably managed. Ask your local greengrocer or supermarket where the mistletoe they sell comes from. You can also buy mistletoe via mail order. For more information visit http://www.buy.mistletoe.org.ukor call 01584 819995.
Help to ensure a future for mistletoe’s main habitat, the traditional orchard, by supporting producers of juice, cider and fruit from these smaller orchards.
Grow your own mistletoe. It’s easy to do if you have the host tree (apple, lime or hawthorn). More information about growing your own can be found at: http://www.mistletoe.org.uk
You can also help by filling in an online mistletoe survey to help build up a picture of where people buy their mistletoe from and what they use it for. And finally, join the Facebook campaign to save our mistletoe!