A harvest of kisses in the apple orchard

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The Independent Online
IF KISSES are snatched under the mistletoe in Shropshire next week, the recipients may have Robert Bemand to thank.

Mr Bemand, 71, has been gathering holly and mistletoe from the apple orchard of his farm at Bromyard, in Hereford and Worcester, for more than 50 years. The harvest is taken to a specialist market in Tenbury Wells, Shropshire, one of the biggest in England, about a month before Christmas.

'It's a bit of a seasonal ritual,' Mr Bemand, a retired dairy farmer, said yesterday. 'In the old days, we used to take the mistletoe to the village blacksmith who would put it on the train to Manchester. They don't seem to have much of it up north.'

The mistletoe grows naturally as a parasite on a number of trees, including hawthorns and poplars, after birds deposit seeds in cracks in the bark. Old apple trees are most favoured by the mistletoe thrush, the principal consumer of the berries which contain the seeds. The shrub begins to sprout about a year later, and can grow clusters of 3ft branches in a couple of years. 'It just seems to take root; it's amazing how it survives,' said Mr Bemand, who has tried to grow it himself, without much success.

A shortage of English mistletoe, blamed on the disappearance of old apple orchards, has fuelled demand which has in part been met by French imports.

The size of the harvest varies considerably from year to year, depending on the abundance of the white, waxy berries - traditionally, each berry represents a kiss. A 20lb bundle sells for about pounds 25 at market. Holly fetches about pounds 5 for a 15lb bundle, but is regarded as a better commodity because it is far more ubiquitous.

Mr Bemand usually keeps some mistletoe for his own use. 'It's always tempting to hang it up and steal a kiss,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)