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A ruff of mistletoe: what am I bid?

A handbell rings out across the frosty market signalling the start of the first pre-Christmas auction of holly and mistletoe at Tenbury Wells in Shropshire. Local farmers and growers in trilby hats mingle with city types in wax jackets; families of gypsies watch to see what their entries will make; children, who traditionally bunk off school for this first sale, run about exhilarated in the crisp air - for everyone this sale marks the beginning of Christmas.

This year the holly is magnificent. "The best berry I've seen for many a year," comments Nick Champion, the auctioneer. His firm, Russell, Baldwin & Bright has been conducting these four pre-Christmas sales since the turn of the century. The variety is amazing: not only the usual dark- green prickly stuff, but yellow, cream, lime green and silver-leafed hollies; smooth-edged with big leaves; dark, thin-leafed; and tiny, variegated silver-edged varieties. This year all are heavy with lipstick- red berries.

Between the piles of holly glisten the bundles of mistletoe. "Most of it comes in from the old orchards around Hereford, Worcester, and Shropshire," Nick tells me. "Occasionally we get an entry from France but we don't encourage it."

Most of the buyers are wholesalers, retailers or florists. John Ward is at the sale buying for supermarkets. "Mistletoe is traditionally sold here by the wrapper, which weighs something under 28lbs," he says. "It is packed in a way that avoids damage but even so, for us about one third is wastage." At Tenbury Wells a wrapper sells for about pounds 1 a lb, so however labour intensive the operation, for the supermarkets it must be very profitable.

However, most of the people at the auction complain that mistletoe is on the decline. Some of the sellers apparently harvest it badly. John Ward shows me one entry in which the whole bough bearing the "ruff" of mistletoe had been hacked off the tree. "It weighs very heavy but it's finished now for ever," he says.

Far worse for the future of mistletoe, however, is the fact that the old cider orchards, where the mistletoe has flourished for centuries, are now being replaced by new dwarf orchards where nothing as parasitic as mistletoe is tolerated.

In view of this, Plantlife, the conservation charity, has joined with the Botanical Society of the British Isles to conduct a Mistletoe Survey. Jonathan Briggs, the survey's co-ordinator, is at Tenbury Wells to examine the mistletoe. As he explains, "In 1969/70 a survey was done in the British Isles which showed that mistletoe grew best on cultivated apple trees - wild crab apples were far less important. So we invited the public to find out whether mistletoe was really on the decline or not. So far, and this survey covers this and last winter, the distribution is turning out to be very similar to that of 25 years ago. Mistletoe is still found mainly in Hereford, Worcester, and Gloucestershire with some strongholds in Somerset. As for hosts, cultivated apple is still right at the top."

Nevertheless, it is still proving difficult to work out whether there is a decline or not. Plantlife encourages those who take part in the survey to try to establish mistletoe in their own gardens and this can confuse the issue. As Jonathan Briggs says, "At one time the main vector spreading mistletoe was the mistle thrush, now it is probably man."

Mistletoe is found throughout Europe.The plant is propagated when a bird wipes its beak after eating the berries and deposits seed on a bough. The pulp rapidly hardens, protecting the seed, and in germination the sucker penetrates the bark and makes contact with the tissue of the host tree. It does no harm to its host and usually lives until the tree dies. The leaves and bark (but not the berries, which are poisonous) are used in animal husbandry. They have also played a part in folk medicine, being used traditionally for epilepsy, St Vitus Dance, heart disease, snake bites and toothache. As with many plant myths, recent research has revealed a genuine value: mistletoe is now being developed in the treatment of cancer.

Holly, too, had many medicinal uses and was considered powerful in combating evil - and it symbolised fertility and eternal life. This is probably why it was first brought into the house in pagan days, however, it was soon assimilated into Christianity - its prickles bringing to mind the crown of thorns and the berries the drops of Christ's blood. In 1640 Parkinson wrote of holly in his famous work Theatrum Botanicum, "the branches with berries are used at Christ tide to decke our houses withall". If the scenes at Tenbury Wells market are anything to go by, the tradition is as strong as ever. Long may it remain so.

Sales at Russell, Baldwin & Bright, Teme Street, Tenbury Wells, continue on 5 December and 12 December.

If you want to take place in Plantlife's Mistletoe Survey send a large sae to Plantlife, The Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD.