It seems hardly anytime since the team at Cotehele harvested their annual crop of apples in the orchards at Cotehele in Cornwall, earlier this autumn. But the property team are just finishing preparations for the second orchard harvest of the year, however the crop isn’t apples this time, but instead mistletoe and it looks like its going to be a bumper one.
The crop of mistletoe berries are making their transition from light green beads to the ripe pearly white translucent berries that we’ve come to love to use for decorating our houses at Christmas time.
But other than increasing your chances of getting a Christmas kiss, what else do we know about this mysterious plant?
Fancy a kiss under a parasite? Without wishing to take away the romance of a kiss under the mistletoe this Christmas, mistletoe is actually a semi-parasitic plant, so relies on a host to stay alive. One of its favoured trees is apples trees, so nationally, where there is a high density of orchards there tends to be a high density of mistletoe, Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire are particular hotspots. Here at Cotehele the orchards date back to 1731.
The sticky berries are consumed by birds and deposited on branches where they stick and germinate. Its root system spreads under the bark of the host tree and ‘borrows’ some of the essential nutrition from the tree.
Mistletoe has an ecosystem of its own and a number of species dependant on it for their life cycle, without it they would not survive. From bugs that suck on its sap to the mistletoe marble moth and the mistletoe beetle. It is one of the few native plants with white berries, so its berries are often overlooked by many birds as a food source as they focus on more brightly coloured berries. As a result it attracts specialist feeders such as the Mistle Thrush and Blackcap.
Because of it’s value to conservation mistletoe should be managed and harvested sensitively to ensure that it can remain at a density low enough as to not affect the vigour of it’s host but sufficient enough to sustain these species. Some of these species have been recorded at the Old Orchard at Cotehele, and are amongst one of the few recording this far west in the country.
Druids have long held the Mistletoe in high regard and would pay mid-winter worship to it, perhaps because of its close association with the mid-winter solstice. Very rarely mistletoe will find an oak tree as a host and there is a tradition of Druidic ceremonies to harvest it from these sacred groves.
Chris Groves, Orchard Officer for the National Trust at Cotehele said: ‘The mistletoe at Cotehele plays a really important role at the property. Following its harvest in early December, the mistletoe goes on sale at the Cotehele shop from the 3rd December. All the funds raised from this annual sale goes towards the protection and ongoing maintenance of the orchards at the property. We also have an annual Wassail when visitors are encouraged to come along, wearing bright clothing and be prepared to help make a lot of noise all which helps to scare away the evil spirits from the orchard, ensuring we have a good harvest of both apples and mistletoe next year’.
Cotehele’s Wassail takes place on Saturday the 17th December, 11.30am.