Careful management ensures Christmas symbol continues to thrive

-Work has begun on removing hundreds bunches of one of the traditional symbols of Christmas, mistletoe, at Cotehele , one of the few National Trust locations in the South West where mistletoe is thriving.

Chris Groves, National Trust Orchard Officer at Cotehele explains how the traditional orchard provides a perfect habitat for mistletoe to flourish.  ‘Part of the essential conservation work we carry out at the property involves cutting it back and removing the distinctive mistletoe clumps.  This work helps encourage a healthy growth of both male and female mistletoe and ensures the mistletoe doesn’t overwhelm the trees it’s growing on.

‘We sell the mistletoe at the property in the run up to Christmas, providing a valuable source of income to the property which is ploughed back into helping us protect Cotehele’s orchards’, he added.

Cotehele in the Tamar Valley in Cornwall, is an area historically famed for its apple and cherry orchards.  The old orchard, which dates from pre 1731, is full of character and mystery, while the ‘Mother Orchard’, which contains 300 trees and 120 delicious apple varieties, was planted by the local community in 2007 to establish a gene pool of heritage varieties.

Mistletoe is commonly found on fruit trees where it is relatively easy to harvest but can also be seen on other host trees such as 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.

-Chris explains further “Mistletoe benefits from management. Unchecked, it will swamp its host tree and ultimately cause it to die. So we ensure we undertake regular, managed cropping making sure that the host tree remains productive while ensuring that a healthy population of mistletoe will persist.”

Mistletoe also plays an important role in supporting wildlife.  It provides winter food for birds such as the blackcap and mistle thrush and thanks to such great weather this year, it’s been a good growing season for berries.

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).

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.

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