Lindow Manchester

Mistletoe for the Chop?

An interesting link with the Lindow Man exhibition emerged recently on the subject of mistletoe. Conflicting reports about the future of the plant  appeared in some newspapers last weekend. The Mail on Sunday (7/12/08 p.51) is looking forward to a bumper native crop of mistletoe because of the combination of last year’s mild winter and the recent cool, wet summer. In previous years the mistletoe has had to be imported from France.

Louise Gray in The Daily Telegraph Weekend (6/12/08 p22) is less optimistic. Although the plant is safe this year because of the favourable climatic conditions, longer term the plant is at risk of dying out because of changes in farming practice over the last fifty years. Over half of the apple orchards where the plant has thrived in the past have been uprooted. The cutting of female plants, which carry the berries, has not affected the poisonous male plants, which continue growing and eventually kill their hosts. Some of the male plants should be cut as well. It’s a question of reviving lost techniques in order to ensure the future of this fascinating plant. Jonathan Briggs, ecologist and mistletoe expert, who was interviewed in the Telegraph, said that home-grown mistletoe could disappear in 25 years. Mistletoe is strongly associated with a sense of local identity and is an important part of the economy of Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire and Tenbury Wells, Worcestershire. The latter is the home of the annual mistletoe festival. Mistletoe is part of our culture and we should not allow it to die out, said Briggs.

This reminded me that J.D.Hill, who I interviewed at the British Museum last summer as part of the Lindow Man project, talked about the archaeological significance of mistletoe in the Lindow Man discovery. Several grains of mistletoe pollen were found in Lindow Man’s digestive tract when his body was examined at the British Museum in the 1980s.

Grains of mistletoe pollen found in Lindow Man's intestine

Grains of mistletoe pollen found in Lindow Man’s intestine

J.D. said that unlike tree or grass pollen, which is spread by the wind, mistletoe pollen is picked up by birds and other animals and transferred to other plants to fertilise them. For pollen to be in Lindow Man’s stomach it must mean that part of the mistletoe plant was in the meal he was given shortly before his death. Does this imply that this took place late in the autumn/early winter when there are berries or the early spring when the plant has its flowers? J.D. argued it can’t have been accidental. He also told me that since the discovery of Lindow Man a complete mistletoe plant has been discovered still attached to an oak trunk at a site called Wardey Hill, in the fens of Cambridgeshire. When this was first found, the plant specialist thought it was just accidental but the plant was found at the entrance in the ditch of this Iron Age site. This is a place where we would expect to find ritual deposits and in fact this seems to be confirmed by the fact that there are human remains around the entrance to this site as well. This is another example of mistletoe for prehistoric Britain and arguably it’s from a ritual context said J.D.Hill.

Visitors to the Lindow Man exhibition at the Manchester Museum can see a late 16th century Herbal in Emma Restall Orr’s section. The book is open at the pages dealing with mistletoe and visitors can read about mistletoe’s properties. It would be sad to think that the 2000 year old tradition of using mistletoe might disappear because native plants are not being managed sustainably.


9 Comments so far
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Did anyone see the article in about mistletoe in last weekend’s Telegraph Magazine? It had some interesting stuff about how mistletoe spreads and about the folklore associated with the plant. York Minster has special dispensation to hang it inside and the weird branchign pattern is supposed to stave off witches and lightening strikes and wolves (north of the border). Farmer Stan Yapp quotes a local custom by which a child would run across a field of young corn with a burning spray of mistleote dragging behind her (sic) to ensure a good crop. This was happening forty years ago. Fascinating.

Comment by bryansitch

I have an ancient apple tree and a thriving mistletoe plant. At present they seem to be in harmony.

Comment by Hulmey

Any chance of photograph to go on the blog?

Comment by bryansitch

Some confused accounts of mistletoe appearing here! The Lindow Man and mistletoe connection is very unclear – and I’ve never yet read a proper explanation! If he had mistletoe pollen in his gut it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Mistletoe pollen is spread by insects and wind – in your account you (and J D Hill) are confusing it with berries – which are spread by birds and man. Pollen is only around in February/March, when mistletoe flowers – so this does give clear dating, unless of course it had been dried and stored… As for eating mistletoe – well it’s still eaten/drunk in tea form in continental Europe, so that may not be significant at all. The oak mistletoe in Cambridgeshire, if its a living specimen, is only going to be a few decades old at most – maybe 100 years if lucky. Just because it’s at an ancient site doesn’t make it contemporary – but it is likely to have been introduced there deliberately, but more likely in recent years. HTH Jonathan

Comment by Jonathan Briggs

I agree that the presence of such a tiny quantity of mistletoe in Lindow Man’s gut need not be tremedously significant. Jody Joy in his recent book says it could have been ingested inadvertantly. I’m sure you’re right about the confusion between mistletoe pollen and berries. One of the reason for running the Blog was precisely to get better informed comment from those in the know. It’s great to have continuing comment even if the Lindow Man exhibition closed in April. I checked the transcript of the interview with J.D.Hill and he said: ‘… since the discovery of Lindow Man there was a discovery of a complete mistletoe plant still attached to an oak trunk from a site called Wardey Hill, which is in the fens of Cambridgeshire and again, interestingly, when this was first found, the plant specialist said it was just accidental. However, it just happens to be in the ditch at the entrance of this Iron Age site in a place where we know is the prime place for placing ritually placed deposits (and by the way, there are bits of humans around the entrance this site as well). So there is one other now example of Mistletoe from Iron Age Britain. I would argue [it is] from a ritual context.’ I don’t know more than that was what known two years ago.

Comment by Bryan Sitch

Rather late for more comments – but, for reasons unknown, I’ve only just notification (13th April 2010) of the reply to my comment above – which is dated July 17th 2009. Very odd.

But, if anyone is still monitoring, my question remains about the Cambridge oak mistletoe story. What is it? Live? Archaeological remains? I have to say I’m extremely sceptical that someone has found a bog-preserved oak tree with mistletoe on it. That would be a major find. Having checked a few google search results (not exhaustive) I’ve only found reference to JD HIll referring to “Mistle berries have been found in Cambridgeshire near the entrance at Wardey Hill,”. Preservation of berries seems just as unlikely – and there may be confusion, again, with pollen. But even if there are some documented preserved berries that does not get anywhere even close to an oak tree complete with haustorial structure on a branch/trunk. So, has anyone actually got a real source for this oak tree story – or is it just a chinese whisper? Do tell. Please.

Comment by jonathan briggs

It has taken some time to track this one down but colleagues at the British Museum have told me that the reference to mistletoe is in: –
Christopher Evans 2003 . Power and island communities: excavations at the Wardy Hill ringwork, Coveney, Ely. East Anglian Archaeology 103 (Pages 112 and 113 for the plant report). The conclusion has further discussion. I haven’t seen the report myself. I’m grateful to J.D.Hill and Jody Joy at the British Museum for sharing this information with me.

Comment by bryansitch

Hi Bryan,

Thanks for the reference – I had, just recently, tracked down the same reference myself – though haven’t had a chance to look at it as East Anglian Archaeaology doesn’t seem to be available online, not even through online academic/journal libraries, so I’ll have to get a copy the old-fashioned way via a real library. Will update when I’ve had a look.

Jonathan Briggs

Comment by jonathan briggs

Re-reading the blog I think the cambridgeshire oak mistletoe you’re describing may be on bog-oak – and therefore archaeological? Can you clarify? If it is an archaeological mistletoe plant in-situ on a bog oak that is of some significance – as mistletoe is (and always has been) very rare on oak and so the chances of an archaeological survival would be very small. More info please!

Comment by Jonathan Briggs

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