I extricated myself from the conversation with Norm Shipton by looking at him a bit blankly and shrugging when he asked who I’d been talking to about the Vedder family picnics in the 1970s. He accepted that and we talked a bit more about wood—did I need some for building? No. Or had I thought about coppicing the beech trees? Actually, I had. So we chatted about that a bit.
Was this conversation a sign of acceptance into the local community? I don’t know and frankly, don’t particularly care. As long as I’m not ostracized I’m not going to worry about whether or not I belong. I’ve never been sure what it means to belong anyway.
Mistletoe is my theme because it begins with “M” and it is something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to. My first port of call with any research these days is “What did Washington Irving say about this?” You’d be surprised at how often that actually produces something. About mistletoe Irving says “young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under [mistletoe], plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases.” I found this quote in a good article about mistletoe from the Smithsonian Magazine that you can read here.
The plant has been connected to “romance” and “fertility rituals” for sometime. I put those words in quotes because they both are polite ways of saying sex. If you’re of a sensitive disposition you might want to get smelling salts for the next bit.
Mistletoe, like all species, depends on propagation to survive and it propagates in some pretty distinctive ways. Squash some mistletoe berries and you get seeds spurting out in a sticky mass. Rub that mass onto a tree branch (especially apple tree branches) and you may get mistletoe to grow. It’s a parasitic plant. It doesn’t put roots in the ground; it feeds off the roots, moisture, and nutrition that its host tree provides. But it is so slow growing that it does not harm the tree it is feeding from.
How can it survive if it depends on people rubbing seed goop onto tree branches? It doesn’t. Birds eat the berries; birds alight on branches; birds poop the seeds onto branches. Nature is odd.
I think there is something witty and cynical to be said here about the connection between mistletoe as a parasite and as a symbol for romance.
But as disillusioned as I am about romance these days, I hold out a hope that perhaps the mistletoe might give something back to the tree. Maybe when it appears to be at its worst—taking nutrients, taking water, strangling the branch it actually provides something to the tree that’s not quite visible to bystanders. Maybe it keeps the tree going. Maybe the tree wouldn’t have it any other way.
Okay, I’m babbling now. Ahem—mistletoe can also be a valuable cash crop. You’re not going to get rich from it; but if harvested sustainably you can sell it at Christmastime, watch people cavort under it, and hear the laughter. Be a part of the continuing cycle.