22 December 1995

MISTLETOE: THE KISS OF DEATH?

ARE we kissing goodbye to our native mistletoe as our ancient orchards are grubbed out?

Thats a prospect thats worrying the conservation charity Plantlife, which is halfway through a two-year survey into this mystical parasite which has fascinated mankind at all levels, from the Druids to the wolf at the office party.

Even the smoothest of smooch merchants might be disconcerted to discover that the plant of his passion may not be British. French mistletoe is now making big inroads into our traditional Christ-mas market.

One of the objects of the two-part survey, carried out with the Botanical Society of the British Isles, is to discover whether our mistletoe (Viscum album) has declined since it was last looked at 25 years ago. The first part, carried out last winter, resulted in thousands of sightings and showed that in its traditional location, the Severn Valley and the West Country, mistletoe is still doing well. But north of the midlands it becomes increasingly scarce. Wales doesnt have much, except for a bit in Gwent, and there were only three recordings in Scotland.

Mistletoe has a centuries-old affinity with apple orchards, where it is easily accessible for harvesting. When orchards are removed the mistletoe goes as well. There has been a significant decline from this quarter, hence the French connection.

Two out of every five recordings were of mistletoe on apple trees. Other popular hosts were limes (one in six), hawthorn (one in 12) and poplars (one in 20). Oak, favoured by the Druids as a host, recorded one in 60. Altogether mistletoe was found on 57 varieties of trees, including pears, sycamore, rowan, willow and ornamental peaches.

This winter Plantlife is asking people to report any sightings from areas where mistletoe is known not to be abundant, principally northern Britain, Cornwall and upland areas generally. It is also keen to hear if it has been spotted on unusual hosts, such as yew trees and other conifers. If none is found at all in an area, this is still significant.

The best time to see mistletoe is between November and April, when it is not obscured by leaves.

Miles King, Plantlifes manager, says it has been one of the most popular wild plant surveys ever organised. "A major concern to us is the origins of mistletoe on sale in shops at Christmas. Our message is to buy British where possible. Mistletoe harvesting in Britain could guarantee the future of our ancient orchards, which are home to many kinds of wildlife," he added.

Anyone can take part in the survey. Volunteers are asked to choose an area of countryside or town and detail their findings. Record cards have mistletoe miscellany painted by Christine Hart-Davies on the cover.

Details from Plantlife, the Natural History Museum, Cromwell Rd, London SW7 5BD (0171-938 9111).

Tom Montgomery

Mistletoe seems to be disappearing with the apple orchards for which it has long had an affinity but it can also be found on other kinds of trees.