Mistletoe imports to Britain
The mistletoe trade in Britain is significantly dependent in imports from mainland Europe – and despite regular scare-mongering media reports that this is somehow ‘new’ and to be resisted, it’s actually been going on for well over a century. Britain, with its limited natural mistletoe populations in the south west midlands, was probably never able to fully meet the Victorian demand for Christmas mistletoe and there is a substantial cross-channel trade in November and December.
These pictures show French mistletoe being harvested in Normandy and Breton Orchards, specifically for export to Britain, in the 1920s and 1930s. Note the traditional costume – the women’s hats don’t look very practical for mistletoe harvesting!
The lower pictures show crates arriving at Southampton Docks, and subsequently at Nine Elms Station London, in the 1920s and 1930s. A poster with some of these images is available for download (see further down this page.
The wooden open-slatted crates are often a good clue to imported mistletoe – they are a style that has been used for decades (they’re in the 1930s pictures above) and are still sometimes seen today. British mistletoe is usually packed much more loosely.
Poster download: The Mistletoe Matters Consultancy has assembled some vintage (1920s and 30s) pictures of the French Mistletoe Harvest and export to the UK.It can be downloaded here (or click on the image on the right). Note that it is a large file (about 4 MB) and is optimised to print at about 300 by 450 mm.
Mistletoe trading in France
The mistletoe kissing custom is a very British tradition – our continental cousins are much less reserved, and don’t usually need such excuses for their kissing! But there are many allied winter mistletoe customs, mostly relating to mistletoe as a symbol of peace and of good luck.
Mistletoe in France was often sold as on the sheet by Marchands de Gui – Mistletoe Sellers. These pictures show a few typical pictures of French mistletoe sellers – ranging from the traditional merchant with a pole of mistletoe, through to a rather more saucy representation from Raphael Kirchner (dating from the first World War):
Several other artists also painted these Marchands de Gui – including Barrere (left) and Picasso (right).
Harvest for medicinal uses
Continental mistletoe is harvested for more than just the seasonal trade. The European traditions of using mistletoe in medicine, particularly the Anthroposophic approach advocated by Steiner, means there is harvesting all year round.
This is a different sort of harvest – the aim is to sample mistletoe at several times of year, and from differing hosts – as the chemical properties of mistletoe vary according to season and host. This careful, sustainable year-round harvesting is a complete contrast to the Christmas rush just to get a few branches with berries!
Most is taken from apple and pine trees, but minority hosts are also sought, including oak. To guarantee supplies from these minority hosts the mistletoe crop is harvested very carefully, and new colonies are established on key host species such as oak.