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Pining for the mistletoe to celebrate Christmas

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Gardening on the Edge by Diana Wayland

Mistletoe is a semi-parasite.
Mistletoe is a semi-parasite.

With the winter festive season upon us, I, once again, miss those evergreens that were, further south, so much a part of our festivities – holly and mistletoe.

The association of evergreen plants with winter festivals goes back to the Romans, who used to decorate their temples, in particular, and possibly their homes with evergreens to bring life indoors at a time when much outside looked dead.

It was also said that their gods came in and snuggled in the evergreens out of the cold.

I miss the evergreens. All we have growing are our scrubby copse of Sitka spruce and, new this year, ivy. The spruces struggle so it seems unfair to cut bits off them, and the ivy is currently too small.

I long to grow holly, a British woodland native, but am aware of the challenges posed by trying to introduce this slow-growing shrub where so little in the way of trees and shrubs ever grew and, even more difficult, trying to get it to have berries.

Holly is dioecious – male and female flowers are on separate plants. That means I need at least two plants and, worse, need to know that one of them is male. It also needs well-drained but not dry slightly acidic soil. Ours is alkaline.

However, it might stand a chance under our Sitkas which would provide it with a bit of shelter from the salt winds, and the soil there may be more acidic due to the existing trees.

If holly is difficult then mistletoe is just about impossible. This semi-parasite (it has green leaves which photosynthesise) grows on certain trees, which include lime and apple more commonly than oak.

I did actually once grow my own, on an apple tree in a pot. It had just got going when the apple tree died. Short of asking friends if they could pack some up for me and send it north I have to do without mistletoe, too.

It has a lot of mythology, being the plant that killed Balder in Scandinavian legend (which is why it must hang from the ceiling and never touch the earth), and sacred to the Druids of early Britain.

Both holly and mistletoe are toxic. Holly can have effects similar to too much caffeine, and mistletoe can affect the heartbeat and lower blood pressure.

So I took care how I hung mistletoe, to keep the berries from dropping to the floor. I made little parachutes of clear plastic which were suspended below the bunches of mistletoe, hung inside entrances.

Anything evergreen can be used for decoration, but with caution as others are also toxic. I never used yew, because it is far too poisonous. I did use chamaecyparis, as it has a nice orangey scent. Rosemary and myrtle also have pleasant scent.

Our tree is pine, bought locally. The tradition of the decorated tree is probably German in origin and was brought to Britain by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

Tinsel and garlands of lights are our main decorations at this time of year, confined to the house by the weather conditions. But I do long to have the holly and mistletoe back again.

Perhaps I will attempt to grow the mistletoe on a potted apple tree which I can take into the greenhouse for winter. But someone will have to send me up some to start with!

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