When I lived in the UK, mistletoe was a rarity, only to be found in over-priced bunches in garden centres during the run-up to Christmas. Moving here, I saw that it grows abundantly in our area. Some species of tree are covered with spheres of it. In fact, it’s a bit of a pest, but mistletoe is so entwined with myth and tradition, that there is nonetheless something magical about it.
It’s many years since we actually bought mistletoe – or gui, as it’s called in France. We have always been able to find a supply close to home. In fact, one particular cherry tree that grew up the track from our house, was our annual source for several years – until someone cut it down.
No matter; I found another supply down our lane, which provides us with a good bunch every year. This tree, a plum, also has the advantage of being accessible. Normally, you have to hack your way through the undergrowth to get to a mistletoe-bearing tree and when you get there you find you needed a ladder because it grows too high up.
Mistletoe, of which many species exist throughout the world, is described as a hemiparasitical plant. It takes nutrients partly from photosynthesis, but also taps into the host tree to extract water and food. A healthy tree can usually withstand a plant or two, but a heavily-infested tree will die bit by bit. Around here, the most common hosts are fruit trees and black poplars, which grow abundantly along the rivers.
The plants are disseminated by birds that eat the berries and transport the sticky and indigestible seeds to another tree. Mistletoe can’t grow by itself from the ground, so it has evolved this method of propagating itself successfully. And this explains why the plants often grow high above ground level. In times past, people extracted glue from the berries, which was used to snare birds.
Myth and tradition
Mistletoe is associated with Druidism and pagan rites. Because it is evergreen, it symbolises eternal life and was credited with magic and medicinal powers. The most sought-after mistletoe was that which grew on oak trees – very rare indeed. During his wars against the Gauls, Julius Caesar wanted to have all the mistletoe-bearing oaks felled to undermine the druids’ power.
René, who used to lead walks in the area, once told us that a survey had found only about 15 oak trees that were mistletoe-bearing throughout France and none in this region (probably not very accurate, but at least a measure of their rarity). The oak normally develops a chemical barrier, which prevents the mistletoe from taking root. You can see an image of an oak with mistletoe here.
In the Middle Ages in France, mistletoe was cut and offered as a symbol of prosperity and long life, usually accompanied by a set form of words to assure their arrival. Nowadays, of course, we regard kissing beneath the mistletoe as one of those slightly obscure Christmas traditions whose origins are lost in time.
The leaves, bark and berries of mistletoe are highly toxic, so don’t be tempted to decorate your Christmas dishes with them. It takes only five berries to provoke serious stomach upsets. Even so, research that has not yet been validated seems to show that extracts of mistletoe may have anti-cancer properties.
Next up will be the Life on La Lune French Christmas Quiz. So stay tuned for your annual helping of Gallic trivia.
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