I’ve just returned from a brief trip to Somerset, where I’d been invited to talk to readers of The People’s Friend and My Weekly magazines. They held it at the Warner Leisure Hotels Cricket St Thomas venue (which some of you may know was used for the external shots in the television sitcom To The Manor Born).
At first, I wasn’t sure what I was going to talk about, but while I was going through my image library, I came across a topic that connects Somerset with the Welsh Borders.
The connection is Mistle Tan.
Mistel is the Anglo Saxon word for dung. And Tan is the Anglo Saxon for stick or twig. Therefore, Mistel Tan means dung on a stick.
This is quite appropriate when you learn that Mistle Tan is where our modern word of Mistletoe comes from.
One of the key ways mistletoe is spread is through bird droppings. The white mistletoe berries are the favourite food of the Mistle Thrush (hence its name) and the European black cap. The birds eat the sticky berries, digest the fleshy part of the berry, and they deposit the remaining seed as a bird dropping. And if that dropping falls on a stick or a twig, which is stuck there long enough, eventually the seed germinates.
They also spread the seeds by wiping their beaks against the bark, which transfers the seeds. (The Mistle thrushes are the ones who ‘fertilise’ seeds, whereas the Blackcap uses the twigs to wipe their beaks.)
So, what’s the Somerset connection?
Well, Mistletoe is quite rare in the UK, however, it grows abundantly in the Welsh Border counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. But it’s also abundant in Somerset. So why does mistletoe grow so well in these four counties?
- 75% of all mistletoe grows on four types of tree: apple, hawthorn, lime and poplar.
- 50% of all mistletoe is found on apple trees in the UK.
When I say “Orchards,” what I really mean is, sort of. There are apple orchards all over the UK – in Wales, Northern England and Scotland – but mistletoe does not grow abundantly in these areas, if at all. So there’s something else at play here.
The climate. Mistletoe thrives in these areas because they have low winter temperatures and high summer ones. It’s this extreme difference in temperatures across the year that seems to help Mistletoe thrive.
And while Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire all have hilly areas, most of the orchards are in the lower, sheltered valleys of the River Wye and River Severn. Much of this land is below 250 feet above sea level.
While Somerset doesn’t have huge rivers like the Wye and Severn running through the county, it, too, is surrounded by hilly areas, and much of the land where its orchards can be found is below 250 feet above sea level.
Another similarity that Somerset has with the Welsh Borders is its soil type. Apple trees, in particular, thrive on slightly acidic soils, which is found in these four counties.
So, mistletoe thrives here because of the combination of the right trees, in the right soil conditions, in the right weather.
There’s another reason orchards are so important to mistletoe. We often refer to this festive plant to as a parasite because it grows on other trees – it can’t survive on its own.
Actually, it’s not a parasite, it’s a hemiparasite – a half-parasite if you like. Mistletoe grows on trees so that it can send its roots down through the bark of the host tree to get minerals and water.
But mistletoe is also an evergreen plant – it has green leaves, which means it can photosynthesise. So its green leaves enable it to create sugars and nutrients from the light. Therefore, it needs access to light, which is why we rarely find mistletoe in forests, and why it thrives so nicely on spaced out trees in orchards.
In Somerset, only 6% of the county is covered in trees (the average tree cover per county is 13%), which is why those cider-producing orchards around the county are so important. In a county with half the tree cover of the national average, the few trees it has are perfect hosts for mistletoe.
The best place to get some mistletoe is at the annual Tenbury Wells Mistletoe Auctions, held annually on the last Tuesday of November and the first Tuesday on December. They have thrived here for the last 160 years, and are the UK’s largest mistletoe auctions.
On each sales day, there are typically 600 lots of mistletoe to be sold (and that’s just the mistletoe, that doesn’t include the holly also sold here) – although there can be over 1,000 lots on each sales day – depending upon the harvest.
They usually sell lots in two sizes: 10kg to 15kg (22 – 33lb), or 10kg and 25 kg (22–55lb). Again, it all depends upon the harvest each year. And just like any auction, prices vary from year to year – ranging from 25p and 75p a pound (so a smaller 10kg lot could sell for between £5 and £20).
Historically, these sales were held at Tenbury Wells’ cattle market site, providing a huge economic boost to this rural town. But like many town centre cattle markets in the Welsh Borders, they’ve either closed or been relocated.
Tenbury’s mistletoe auctions now take place at Burford House, two miles down the road, but on the other side of the River Teme, which means they now take place in Shropshire. Unfortunately, it means Tenbury doesn’t get the huge swell of visitors that it used to on these market days.
So, back in 2004, residents got together and created the Mistletoe Festival, which takes place on the first Saturday in December. They even got Parliament to declare the 1st December as National Mistletoe Day. Images I took at the 2019 Mistletoe Festival can be seen here: https://www.simonwhaley.co.uk/the-magic-of-mistletoe/
While mistletoe needs a host tree to live on, it is also a host to a rare creature itself. The Mistletoe Marble Moth is known as a micro moth, because its wingspan measures about 16mm, just under three-quarters of an inch, and it is found only on mistletoe because its sole food source is the leaf.
The larvae overwinter inside the mistletoe leaf, feeding on the green leaves, before pupating in June. It then hatches as an adult moth in July and August. It’s difficult to spot because its markings are a mix of white, fawn and cobalt blue, which to any potential predators means it looks like a bird dropping, rather than something tasty to eat!
And because Somerset is a mistletoe stronghold, it means it’s also a good place to find the Mistletoe Marble Moth. In particular, there are two National Trust properties that have orchards, where the Mistletoe Marble Moth has been found: Barrington Court, and Tintinhull Gardens. Both orchards are managed to ensure enough new mistletoe growth, which is what the moth prefers.
So, the next time you take a kiss under the mistletoe, the chances are what you’re kissing under came from either Somerset or the Welsh Borders.