Mistletoe in the palace gardens: why do kiss under it?

One of the most popular enquires the gardeners get during winter concerns strange lumps of weed growing in trees on the East Front garden.  These random and odd-looking growths are in fact clumps of mistletoe. To give it its correct botanical name, it’s called Viscum album, which is our very own native species found across the British Isles. But beware this festive flora: it is actually a parasitic plant that grows on the flesh of trees and if not careful, this can lead to the tree’s demise if the mistletoe is allowed to swamp the tree and strangle it, starving it of nutrients and water.

At Hampton Court Palace, we are particularly blessed with mistletoe and it quickly populates old and young trees thanks to two key elements. It is a lovely story of Mother Nature working in partnership with varied species.  First of all, our lime trees provide a perfect host due the ridges and scars in the bark which enables the seeds to germinate, get rooted and grip into the flesh of the tree. Thanks to the formal garden designers of the 17th century, there are many limes to be found in the gardens as they were used to form avenues in Royal Palaces.  You can see it also in other trees such as oak and apple but limes seem the best.

Secondly is the mistle thrush. It has not called that by accident; this bird that is popular in parks and gardens has a particular liking for those white mistletoe berries. However, the problem with the berries is that they are very sticky and the poor old thrush ends up having to wipe his beak on tree branches – lime tree branches in fact! Moreover, that is how the seeds are distributed. You often find once a clump of mistletoe is established on one tree it does not take long for it to spread throughout that tree. The thrush may also pass the seeds on to the tree via its poop, which is also very effective.  Isn’t nature wonderful!

Anglo Saxons, Druids, Romans and many other groups who have occupied our shores seem to have placed some significance in this plant. From using it as a balm to cure ulcers and poisons, to hanging it above doors to deter evil spirits. It has also long had connotations with romance – used in love potion and administered as a fertility restorative. Kissing under mistletoe is a tradition that lasts until today, and seems to have several explanations – a common one being that it originated from Norse mythology.

The story goes that the Norse goddess of love and beauty Frigga had a son, the god Balder. He was the best loved of all the gods, but he was prophesied to die. Frigga loved her son so much that she wanted to make sure no harm would come to him. So she went through the world, securing promises from everything that sprang from the four elements – fire, water, air, earth, including the trees and plants. She secured promises that that they would not harm her beloved Balder. However, the evil spirit Loki heard about the promise and found that mistletoe was not included. He made an arrow from its wood and to make the prank nastier, he took the arrow to Hoder, Balder’s brother, who was blind. Guiding Holder’s hand, Loki directed the arrow at Balder’s heart, and he fell dead. Frigga’s tears became the mistletoe’s white berries.

However, do not fear there is a happy ending: Balder was restored to life, and Frigga was so grateful that she reversed the reputation of the offending plant – making it a symbol of love and promising to bestow a kiss upon anyone who passes under it.

Merry Christmas from the Gardens Team!

Warning! Please take note and advice from our Gardens Team and do not eat mistletoe, make love potions from it or try to remove it from a tree. Leave that to us!

Graham Dillamore
Gardens Operations Manager

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