The case of the vanishing mistletoe . . .

Click to follow
SOMEWHERE in the home counties a secret wood rich in mistletoe - the last stronghold of the festive aphrodisiac in eastern England - is being closely guarded against the depredations of Christmas.

The ancient wood has hundreds of hawthorn trees festooned with the plant, which is rapidly disappearing in Britain but remains sacred to druids and office party opportunists.

The wood is owned by the National Trust, which refuses to disclose its exact whereabouts.

"We do not want people to come and raid it. It's a cat-and-mouse game at this time of year," says the wood's official guardian, who asked not to be named in case his identity helped reveal its location.

Apart from this one citadel, an inquiry last week by the conservation group Plantlife - which is carrying out the first systematic survey of the seasonal parasite for a quarter of a century - found few traces of mistletoe in East Anglia. It can still be found in the west from Staffordshire to Cornwall, but in the past 50 years it has disappeared from 80 areas of Britain.

The survey found one clump in poplar trees on the way from London to Heathrow Airport, another at Runnymede, others at Virginia Water in Surrey and Sittingbourne in Kent. All are too high in the trees for even the most determined romantic, and can be safely disclosed.

It was the way that mistletoe appeared at the tops of trees, as if by magic, that led the druids to revere it. Pliny reported that they "hold nothing more sacred", and describes the priests, clad in white, climbing the trees to cut it down.

The druids, thinking it came from heaven, would catch the mistletoe in their white cloaks rather than let it touch the ground. Centuries later, sprigs of mistletoe which had never been "earthed" were worn around the neck as protection against witchcraft.And we still suspend it, if only from electric lights.

Pliny added that the druids believed it would cure several conditions, including infertility, and this may have sparked off the kissing custom.

But the true secret of mistletoe's apparently magic appearance in trees lies in the properties which give rise to its Latin name - viscum album, or "sticky white". The white berries stick to the beaks of birds, who wipe them against old trees, from whereseeds find their way into cracks in bark. As forests are felled and old orchards are grubbed out, mistletoe has inevitably declined.

But Christmas also seems to be blame. Traders can make good profits selling mistletoe at £1 or more a sprig, Today, the plant is so scarce in Britain that most of the Christmas supplies are imported from France, where despite the English second home invasions of areas like the Dordogne, it remains plentiful.