I’d never seen mistletoe in Scotland. As a symbol of Christmas, I’d reckoned it was something like Myrrh; metaphorical and thrice removed from anything you’d ever hold in your hand. My handbook says that it grows here, but the first time I noticed the plant for sure was in Somerset. That’s hardly “here”. In fact it’s far enough from here to feel like the Middle East, and knowing that did nothing to close the gap in my imagination.
But in the doldrums between Christmas and New Year, I received a bunch of mistletoe from a friend. I’ve seen the plant caricatured so often on television and Christmas cards that there was no mistaking the stuff which quickly dried and fell in parts by the stove. It was like a child’s toy; a meccano set, all leggy and brittle with paddlish leaves and berries bolted into the joints. It seemed more like a parody of itself than a credible thing, and with so many festive truths now diluted beyond the point of recognition, I filed it alongside tinsel and stollen.
But when the sickly berries came loose and rolled around the kitchen floor like eyeballs, I reckoned it would be worthwhile and fun to see if they could be propagated. I have a few apple trees here, and crab apples grow wild in the hedge along the loaning. Hearing that mistletoe favours these trees above all others, I followed guidance and made a special trip out with a knife and a tub of parasitic seeds in my pocket.
Mistletoe leaches the nutrients and goodness from host trees like a tick. It gives nothing in return, so I felt guilty bending the stems of happy trees, consigning each one to bear a burden. If I am successful, the seeds will grow and the boughs will bend again with the weight of selfish passengers. Of course I had qualms, but I slit the bark and wedged the berries against the hurting pulp as if I didn’t care. Then I moved on to do more harm.
Two weeks later, and several of the berries have vanished. I bet the tits have had them. The tits have everything at this time of year. But some have survived, and the berries have burnt brown with the frost and hard weather. My handbook says that’s a good sign, and if I had serious reservations about the ethics of this deliberate infection, it’s getting late to act.