Saturday, 19 December 2009
Monday, 7 December 2009
The plant is a semi-parasite, with roots that invade the body of larger woody plants to access minerals and water. Unlike fully parasitic plants it does photosynthesise, so is not dependent on the host for all its needs. In Europe this species lives happily on some 200 species of tree, although we tend to associate it with orchards. In Oxford there is a wonderful colony infesting the trees next to Magdalen Bridge, visible only after the leaves have fallen in autumn. The image is of a young plant growing conveniently low down on a small Sorbus near my house. The leaves, leathery and yellow-green, are paired on whippy stalks, with small clusters of the sticky, gelatinous berries in the axils. In overall habit the plant makes a decorative ball of foliage - a few years ago I bought an entire plant instead of the usual sprig, and was amazed by the intricacy of the 70cm ball of leaves and berries that arrived. It also looked much bigger in the house than it had in the market.
And so to mythology...
A magical plant as far back as the Ancient Greeks, mistletoe was thought to be the Golden Bough of Aeneas, the ancestor of the Romans. In early Christian tradition it had once been a tree, but the timber for Christ's cross was hewn from a mistletoe, since when the plant has been reduced to a withered parasite clinging to others, presumably as a punishment for allowing itself to be put to this use by the Roman soldiers. With a reputation for immortality mistletoe held, in Ancient Britain, a central role in the Druidical rites celebrating the winter solstice.
Finally its use as a Christmas decoration, which must have some connection to the midwinter ceremonies of the Druids. Though only recorded as far back as the 18th century, the use of mistletoe in the home still has shreds of earlier mythologies adhering to it - the mistletoe should not be allowed to touch the ground after harvesting, for instance. Originally the greenery would be kept in the house until Candlemas in early February, although other traditions have it hanging throughout the year as a preventative measure against fire and lightning strike (something akin to the old country practice of growing house-leeks on the roof) before being replaced the following Christmas Eve.
Tuesday, 1 December 2009
At the most basic level, it is structural. Thanks to its flexibility, great tensile strength, ease of handling and durability (when cared for) timber has an essential role to play in the safe creation of many garden structures (and most of the buildings we still live in). In this role it supports decking, stairways, roofs and floors, holds up gateposts and prevents doorways from collapsing.
Beyond this however is the great and inescapable fact of its natural good looks - even beauty - and this quality has been exploited for centuries to embellish the man-made environment, both indoors and out. Whether shaped or left in its native state, wood brings something of the primitive to the garden. As our first building material and the fuel for our earliest fires wood has claim to be as deeply rooted in the human subconscious as the tree is in the earth. Living and dead it has been of critical importance to our survival, sheltering and warming our species since its infancy. In the form of the living tree it continues to be a source of spiritual solace, although paradoxically the forest has also the capacity to inspire fear - the sinister beings of fairytale lurk there.