So this is the first of a couple of posts about this mystical plant and the traditions surrounding it which are, according to Richard Mabey, ” amongst Northern Europe’s last surviving remnants of Plant Magic”. When you see mistletoe silhouetted against the fading light at the end of a long winter’s day it’s quite easy to imagine how it acquired this reputation.
It is a plant without any obvious source of food, without roots, that grows way above the Earth but is not blown away by the wind, that stays green when its hosts have lost their leaves, and that seems capable of spontaneous reproduction and continuing life. It must have been an extraordinary sight to those without our knowledge of its botany and ecology.
And it has a part to play in our parks and gardens.
Read on to find out more…. Bringing in greenery of the decoration of buildings during midwinter festivals is a custom of great antiquity. Centuries before Christianity, evergreens, which flourish when everything else in nature has withered or died, were regarded as symbols of undying life. Although various plants have been used in this way the most popular, now as in the past, are holly, ivy and mistletoe. All are potent life-symbols not only because they are evergreen, but because unlike most other plants they bear their fruit in winter. Yet while holly and ivy appear, for example, in carols and records from the mediaeval period, there are far fewer references to mistletoe until the 18thc
Once you start exploring the history of mistletoe it becomes more and more complex and lost in a web of legends. However one thread seems to run through most of them. The association of mistletoe with renewal and rebirth. This was skilfully linked together by Sir James Frazer, a Victorian anthropologist, in the title of one of those books most of us will of heard of but never picked up, let alone tried to read: The Golden Bough.
Written between 1890 and 1915 It is a vast 12 volume epic where Frazer tried to linked together the central elements of all the ‘old’ religions. He argued they were all fertility cults, revolving round a cyclical pattern of birth, sacrifice and reincarnation. The cover and frontispiece of the first editions are stylized branches of mistletoe.
Firstly there is the classical connection. Mistletoe appears in Virgil’s Aeneid and although there are many versions/translations the gist is much the same. Mistletoe was associated with the sacred groves at Nemi where the pre-Roman priest-king was ritually murdered by his successor. The poet’s description of mistletoe also associates it with gold.
Talking of the grove he wrote: “…through whose branches flashed the contrasting glimmer of gold. As in winter’s cold, amid the woods, the mistletoe, sown of an alien tree, is wont to bloom with strange leafage, and with yellow fruit embrace the shapely stems: such was the vision of the leafy gold on the shadowy ilex…” This of course gave rise to mistletoe being called ‘The Golden Bough’ and becoming one of the central themes in Frazer’s work.
Full text at: http://www.theoi.com/Text/VirgilAeneid6.html
In this tale the Sibyl of Cumae agrees to escort Aeneas to Hades so that he can see his father’s ‘shade’, but in order to enter the underworld she tells him to gather the golden bough from the sacred woods near her cave so that it can be given to Prosperpina [Persephone] as the price of entry.
Obviously he does so …
but if you want to know the rest of the story track down a copy of the Aeneid!
Frazer then linked the mistletoe in the sacred grove at Nemi with the Norse story of the death of Baldur, the supposedly invulnerable god of goodness and peace. Baldur’s mother, Frigga, persuaded the four elements air, water, fire and earth and all the plants and animals to promise never to harm her son, thus making him completely indestructible. Unfortunately one thing was overlooked – and no prizes for guessing what it was – that grew neither on earth nor under the earth – so eventually his enemies discovered this, and used mistletoe to kill Baldur. He of course was later resurrected, whilst the tears shed by Frigga were transformed into the white berries of mistletoe.
You can probably see why Frazer then linked this story intellectually with Christianity, controversial as this made his theory in the late 19thc. Interestingly, however, there were folk legends that persisted well into the 19thc that the true cross was made of mistletoe. If that sounds a bit strange it’s because it was once thought that mistletoe was once a large tree but shrank with shame at its part in Christ’s death, and as a punishment was banned from growing on the Earth. Certainly in parts of Brittany mistletoe, even today, is still referred to as Herbe de la Croix.
The Golden Bough was hugely influential, and has been in print continuously ever since, but was challenged academically and intellectually even when Frazer was still writing it, and is now largely discredited. If you want to know more then all 12 volumes of The Golden Bough are available at Project Gutenburg:
and for refutation of Frazer’s theories try Mary Beard’s article “Frazer, Leach, and Virgil: The Popularity (and Unpopularity) of the Golden Bough” in Comparative Studies in Society and History Vol. 34, No. 2 (Apr., 1992), pp. 203-224]
So our first links between all this and our gardens are sacred groves. Its pretty certain that they existed in Britain in pre-Roman times as Roman and early Saxon writers talk about them, but of course they were disapproved of by the Christian church – as was mistletoe of course because of its pagan associations. In Richard Johnson’s Seven Champions of Christendom (1596), for example, a grove is referred to as a “dismal shady Thicket, beset about with baleful Mistletoe, a place of horror.”
In Sylva, his great work on trees first published in 1662, John Evelyn has “An Historical Account of the Sacrednesse, and Use of standing Groves”. In it he lists classical and biblical evidence about groves, and argues that “Paradise it self was but a kind of Nemorous Temple or sacred Grove, Planted by God himself, and given to Man.” But of course like everything else the woods and groves had been spoiled and “this innocent veneration to Groves passed from the People of God to the Gentiles, and …degenerated into dangerous Superstitions: For the Devil was alwayes Gods Ape and did so ply his Groves, Altars, and Sacrifices, and almost all other Rites belonging to his Worship, that every Green Tree was full of his Abominations.” And bringing it sharply back to Britain Evelyn went on to decry “the Sacrilegious Purchasers, and disloyal Invaders … amongst us, who have lately made so prodigious a spoyl of those goodly Forests, Woods, and Trees (to gratifie an impious and unworthy Avarice).
The rediscovery of antiquity at the Renaissance is usually associated with the revival of classical architecture with the books of Vitruvius, Alberti and Serlio, but there was influence on gardens as well. Tom Turner suggests that the catalyst there was The Dream of Polyphilus. which he believes influenced the planting of groves, indeed sacred groves in England in the 18thc. [See European Gardens: History, Philosophy Design, 2011] But I suspect that the link between groves of trees and ‘divinity’ are there much earlier. The poet Thomas Traherne, for example, believed that groves of trees ‘represent a kinde of heaven on earth, and exhibit a profe unto thee of some divine power present’
Certainly John Evelyn regarded the classical and biblical sacred grove as something to emulate and “the reason is obvious, … the Air of such retired places may be assistant and influential for the inciting of Penitential expressions and affections; especially where one may have the additional assistances of solitary Grotts, murmuring Streams, and desolate Prospects”
Allied with the influence of Hypnerotomachi Polyphili are the visual arts. All those interested in the history of gardens also know of the importance of painters such as Claude Lorraine’s in developing and reinterpreting the classical world for his age, and creating in the process the visual inspiration for the foundations of the landscape garden.
Claude did not set his visions of mythological and biblical stories in greek and roman gardens but in antique landscapes, where of course a prominent feature were groves of trees and temples.
So how did this translate into our parks and gardens? Most obviously it was in the extensive woodland groves planted in the late 17th and early 18thc. William Brogden, for example, argues that Stephen Switzer’s work on Wray Wood at Castle Howard is deliberately secretive like a sacred grove. To read more about this you can read Brogden’s ph.D thesis which can found at:
Similarly William Kent [who owned several copies of Hypnerotomachi Polyphili ] and Lord Cobham who planted groves and peopled them with classical statues and temples were surely recreating the symbolism of, if not the underlying belief in, the sacred grove. That’s certainly the view of both Toby Musgrave in his new book Paradise Gardens (2015) and Tom Turner, in British Gardens: History, Philosophy & Design (2013). Indeed Turner regards the Grecian Valley at Stowe as a prime example of an 18thc sacred grove, and “all the more interesting for not being described as Roman.”
And sacred groves require mistletoe. In the late 17thc Evelyn lists it for growing on trees in groves in Elysium Britannicum and it was known to have been grown like that by William Constable, a plant virtuoso ,at Burton Constable in Yorkshire. (see Elizabeth Hall’s article “The plant collections of an 18th-century virtuoso”in Garden History 1986). But by the late 18thc the planting of trees in groves was disappearing and with it the planting of mistletoe. However, the only other example I can find of deliberate planting in this way was by none other than John Claudius Loudon who bought mistletoe from Herefordshire to set in the trees of Derby Arboretum. If anyone knows of other early examples of such deliberate ‘planting’ please let me know.
How this planting was done is not recorded until Dr William Stukeley, well-known as an early antiquarian, but less probably less well known as a keen gardener, experimented with ‘inoculation’ i.e. bud-grafting trees with mistletoe. Then it was ‘discovered’ – or recorded for the first time – that it could be propagated by rubbing the seeds into the bark of trees such as poplars and apples. Efforts to do so on oak trees were not so successful and indeed Philip Miller in 1737 wrote “whenever a branch of an oak-tree have any of these plants growing upon it, it is cut off and preserved by the curious in their collections of natural curiosities.”
Yet, of course, despite such interest mistletoe is not generally considered an inhabitant of the garden and it rarely gets a mention in standard gardening text before the 19thc. Knowledge about its life-cycle and semi-parasitic qualities were limited, yet from classical times it was thought to have all sorts of medicinal properties, in treating many ailments including vertigo, palsy, and epilepsy. It was, by the Middle Ages, also supposed to keep witches at bay, protect the crops of the trees on which it grew, and of course was an aphrodisiac too. These uses were not confined to European medical texts but can also be found in early Middle Eastern, Chinese and Japanese tracts( (See The History of Herbal Plants, R. Le Strange, 1977) What is perhaps more interesting is that it was being used in cardio-vascular care in the later 19thc, and more recently in treating hypertension and some cancers . See Pharmacy in History, Vol. 33, No. 3 (1991), pp. 144-145] and British Medical Journal, Vol. 333, No. 7582 (23-30 December 2006), pp. 1282-1283]
So mistletoe has a very mixed press. Associated with paganism, and the forces of darkness it was at the same time known to useful medicinally and so then slowly assimilated, like so many other things, into the acceptable side of the plant world.
However,its association with sacred groves meant, as John Evelyn said in Sylva: “There are ten Thousand Considerations more, besides that of their Medicinal and Sanative properties, and the Mechanical Uses mention’d in this Treatise, which a Contemplative Person may derive from the Groves and the Woods; all of them the Subject of Wonder”. More on mistletoe soon…