Kiss mistletoe goodbye?

For 150 years, the thriving market at Tenbury Wells has safeguarded the future of this British crop. Now, developers are moving in
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The Independent Online

The Christmassy world of English mistletoe is facing a crisis. Unlike holly and Christmas trees, mistletoe is a scarce plant that is almost impossible to cultivate. It grows as a parasite on trees with soft bark, especially lime, poplar and apple. But although there are rumours of mistletoe being blasted out of tall trees with a shotgun, most mistletoe that is harvested for the Christmas trade is cut from low-growing orchard trees. And nearly all of it is sold at a single place: Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire.

And there's the rub. Tenbury Wells, known as "Mistletoe Town" or "the Town in the Orchard", has hosted a unique auction of local mistletoe in the heart of the town for nearly 150 years. But last year the traditional site was sold to a developer. Tenbury is a town that takes pride in its history but lacks a supermarket. Hence this year may be the last time that bundles and crates of finest mistletoe strew its old cattle market in the weeks before Christmas.

English mistletoe, they say, is the best in the world. There seems to be something about our soil that produces beautiful, well-trimmed mistletoe with fine lustrous berries. By comparison, the French stuff is relatively coarse with disappointing berries. It is apt to go limp long before the kissing season is over. And American mistletoe (a different species), they say, will fall to bits hardly before it has started.

Home-grown English mistletoe, by contrast, stays fresh, green and well-berried over the whole festive season. The mistletoe of old England, say the growers of Tenbury, "is a kiss or two above the rest".

Stan Yapp of the Herefordshire village of Leysters has been harvesting and selling mistletoe for most of his working life. "We cut it from the apple trees with an old cider-apple pole," he says. "Mistletoe is slow-growing so we cut it from just one orchard in three or four. And we never pull it all but leave about a quarter to grow on."

The season is a short one - just a couple of weeks before Christmas. But cutting mistletoe serves two operations in one. "The male mistletoe plants can damage the trees and reduce the yield if they are allowed to grow too large. So we trim the male ones while we are cutting the mistletoe berries."

The main bidders at Tenbury are garden centres and independent greengrocers - but not supermarkets. Most, if not all, mistletoe sold in High Street stores has been clipped from the poplar-lined fields and lanes of northern France where mistletoe grows in great abundance. There was a rumpus a few years back when it was rumoured that cheaper French mistletoe was undercutting the home trade. All nonsense, says Yapp. "We can never produce enough mistletoe. It always sells out, and every ball and box of it fetches a good price."

If there is a problem it is not so much from trade competition as from "mistletoe rustling." More than one grower this year has had his orchards mysteriously stripped of mistletoe overnight. What may be stolen mistletoe can be recognised from the crude way it has been pulled from the tree, bringing chunks of wood and bark along with it. Unfortunately, mistletoe rustlers are canny thieves and none have yet been caught.

Mistletoe makes useful pin-money for orchard owners at Christmas, but without the ready market in Tenbury it would hardly be worth cropping. What motivates Yapp and the other mistletoe growers is not so much cash as custom. Tenbury Wells may be a small rural town without a supermarket to call its own, but in the world of mistletoe it is a capital city. There are fears that moving the auction to a field outside the town would rob the occasion of its pleasant ambience and unique ties with the town. Moreover, Tenbury would be deprived of the benefit of hundreds of sightseers as well as bidders.

Hence there has been a lot of activity in Tenbury lately. With the future of the auctions uncertain, mistletoe growers and well-wishers have been banding together to give the plant a boost. The result is the Tenbury English Mistletoe Enterprise, whose initial letters happily spell TEME, the name of the river by which many of the best mistletoe orchards grow. With the blessing of Parliament, TEME declared 1 December 2005 the first National Mistletoe Day.

The mistletoe fun kicked off with a well-attended charity ball on 26 November. An art exhibition of "images of mistletoe" has been organised and a Mistletoe Queen crowned with an appropriate garland of local mistletoe. There is to be a Hollies vs Mistletoes football match. Lorraine Chase and others from the cast of Emmerdale are coming down to the town to add their mite of good cheer. And some latterday Druids are going to bless the mistletoe before one of the auctions. By good luck, it coincides with the sixth day of the New Moon, known to be a propitious time for mistletoe-blessing.

The purpose of TEME is to support the local industry in every way it can and, if possible, to ensure a future for the mistletoe auctions within the town. "We are working with local and national agencies to cement an economic future for local growers through positive marketing," says the TEME chairman Reg Farmer. "We are here to support local growers, give a boost to the economy and tourism, and encourage more visitors into the area."

The fate of the unique mistletoe trade at Tenbury Wells surely raises issues well beyond purely local ones. As the MP Bill Wiggin, himself a mistletoe grower, expressed it: "Mistletoe spreads good cheer at Christmas and without it many kisses will be left ungiven." As a patriotic MP he might have gone further. A kiss beneath sturdy English mistletoe must be worth a dozen beneath its wilting, feeble-berried foreign rival.

Mistletoe auctions at Tenbury Wells are held on 6 December and 13 December from 10am to 1pm; English mistletoe from Tenbury can be bought online at www.tenbury-mistletoe.co.uk; for more details see: www.mistletoe.org.uk

Where the berries grow

* Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on a wide range of trees. Only female mistletoe bears berries. Male mistletoe is bushier and produces yellow flowers in spring.

* It can be propagated but the success rate is low. Most orchard mistletoe was "planted" naturally by birds.

* Mistletoe has a patchy distribution, being common in some areas and absent from others. It is most frequent in the parks of country houses and in cider orchards in the West Country. All mistletoe is wild. There are no cultivated varieties.

* The custom of kissing under the mistletoe has ancient roots. The sticky white berries held between suggestively splayed leaves made it an ancient fertility symbol.

* Mistletoe is not a threatened plant, but old orchards where it grows best are being destroyed.

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