Deck The Halls
Is traditional Christmas mistletoe under threat?
The Guardian, 21st December 2005
It's a freezing December morning in the little market
town of Tenbury Wells. In an old cattle market by the
banks of the river Teme, around 100 people have gathered,
rubbing their hands and eating bacon rolls to stave
off the cold. Some are local farmers, others buyers
for shops, hotels and markets. All of them are here
for the mistletoe.
Vast bundles of the elegant winter plant are laid out
in rows on the ground. All of it has been harvested
locally, brought here by farmers and travellers, hoping
to get a good price before Christmas. Between the rows
wander potential buyers, hefting the bundles to estimate
their weight, or fingering the curved leaves and white
berries to check their quality. Across it all floats
the staccato cry of the auctioneer, taking bids at breakneck
Tenbury Wells is the self-appointed 'Mistletoe Capital'
of Britain, and this is one of its three annual mistletoe
auctions - the only ones in the country. What is worrying
locals this year is that it may also be the last.
Alec Wall is a retired detective and local mistletoe
enthusiast. He is also one of the founders of TEME -
Tenbury English Mistletoe Enterprise - which was set
up earlier this year to fend off a developing threat
to this most seasonal of plants.
'The cattle market that used to be held here closed
last year', he explains, 'and a rumour went round that
that was going to be the end of mistletoe sales in Tenbury.
Well, this auction has been going on here since 1862,
and it's the only one in the country. We formed TEME
to make sure it continued. Fortunately this year the
auction is still on this site, but we don't know what's
going to happen next year.' What worries Alec is that
the site will be developed - there have been rumours
of supermarket interest - and the mistletoe sellers
The real danger, says Reg Farmer, with his tongue in
his cheek, is that the market might go to another town
- perhaps one on the other side of the river, in Shropshire.
'If that happened, we would regard it as an attack on
Tenbury', he says solemnly. 'It would be a national
Reg, who has been a farmer in the Teme Valley all his
life and is another of TEME's founders, is walking me
through one of the traditional orchards that the region
is famed for. The twisted trees are leafless in the
winter sun, but almost all of them are hung with great
clumps of mistletoe.
'This whole valley was once covered in orchards' says
Reg. 'But a lot of it's gone. Supermarkets don't want
it's all about eye appeal. And a lot
of these farmers used to provide apples for Bulmers
cider, till they were taken over, and things changed.
These old trees aren't fit for purpose any more. But
a lot of them are very rare varieties.'
The Teme valley is losing its old orchards rapidly.
In this, it is part of a national trend which has seen
orchard area decline by 57% over the last fifty years.
This has long exercised people concerned about landscape
character, biodiversity and rare apple varieties. What
is more rarely mentioned is its effect on mistletoe,
the vast majority of which grows on apple trees like
these. 'There is less mistletoe around than there used
to be,' explains Reg, starkly. 'Much less, because at
the end of the day the orchards are not there.'
Does this combination of orchard loss and town centre
development pose a real threat to the future of Tenbury's
Christmas mistletoe? Jonathan Briggs, one of the country's
leading mistletoe experts, and another member of TEME,
thinks it could, and that the impact of a decline would
be felt nationally. For some reason that is not yet
properly understood, most of Britain's mistletoe grows
in orchards in Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire.
A threat here is thus a threat on a national scale.
'There is definitely a decline in the sort of traditional
orchard in which mistletoe likes to grow,' says Briggs.
'This is going to lead, if it isn't already, to a decline
in the quantities of mistletoe available at Christmas.
This isn't just an English issue, it's northern European.
We also import a lot of mistletoe, most of it from France
and that is also harvested from neglected old orchards.
If you keep on neglecting your old orchards, in twenty
years time there won't be any old orchards
then where do you get your mistletoe from?'
There are, however, signs of hope. Briggs can point
to examples from all over the country of local conservation
initiatives aimed at preserving old orchards and planting
new ones; this, he says, is the key to a healthy future
for mistletoe. And nationally, the future of orchards
may look more secure if English Nature is able to fulfil
its current ambition to include traditional orchards
in the government's national biodiversity action plan.
Alec Wall, too, is optimistic. The publicity that TEME
have managed to whip up in just a few months for their
threatened market is certainly a good sign. 'It's all
been absolutely astounding' says Alec. 'We've had orders
from America, an inquiry from Alaska
we had the
Druids down here last week, blessing the mistletoe.
It's a very special plant, and this is a very special
event. It simply has to continue.'