Kissin’ and Viscin

The Mistletoe in Popular Pastimes ~ FW Stephanoff (1816)

Long  ago and far away — in 1950s Iowa, that is — grocery store produce sections marked the beginning of the holiday season by laying in a supply of cranberries, mixed nuts, and mistletoe. The mistletoe wasn’t for eating, but for hanging. Three or four stems, bearing scattered white berries and tied with red ribbon, were considered de rigueur for New Year celebrations; hanging in doorways or from overhead light fixtures, they ensured opportunities for traditional New Year’s kisses.

Mistletoe traditions can be traced to very early times, when mistletoe was part of winter solstice celebrations. Druids revered the oak; their reverence included the mistletoe which grew on oaks, and which was assumed to have healing properties.

In time, new traditions developed. An anonymously-written book published in 1816 — Popular Pastimes, being a Selection of Picturesque Representations of the Customs & Amusements of Great Britain in Ancient and Modern Timescontained hand-colored plates attributed to Francis Philip Stephanoff, and this delightful passage (note that the spelling of ‘mistletoe’ has changed over the centuries):

Mistletoe is still beheld with emotions of pleasurable interest, when hung up in our kitchens at Christmas; it gives licence to seize “the soft kiss” from the ruby lips of whatever female can be enticed or caught beneath. So custom authorizes, and it enjoins also, that one of the berries of the Misletoe be plucked off after every salute. Though coy in appearance, the “chariest maid” at this season of festivity is seldom loth to submit to the established usage; especially when the swain who tempts her is one whom she approves.

In time, the custom of decorating churches with greens took hold, and mistletoe was included. In his poem Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve, Robert Herrick (1591–1674) wrote about taking down the greenery, including mistletoe, to signal the end of the Christmas season.

Down with the rosemary and bays,
Down with the mistletoe;
Instead of holly, now up-raise
The greener box, for show.

A different poem quoted in Popular Pastimes is undated, but hints that the custom existed in even earlier times.

The Misletoe hangs from an oaken beam,
he Ivy creeps up the outer wall;
The Bays our broken casements screen,
The Holly-bush graces the hall.
Then hey for our Christmas revelling,
For all its pastimes pleasures bring.
The Misletoe’s berries are fair and white,
The Ivy’s of gloomy sable hue;
Red as blood the Laurel’s affect our sight,
And the Holly’s the same with prickles too.
Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball ~ from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol

Before being hung in isolation, mistletoe may have been incorporated into kissing boughs: two intersecting circles of greenery which eventually became our ‘kissing balls.’

When hung in a doorway near the entrance to a house, visitors would embrace the home’s master and mistress under the kissing bough as a sign of goodwill. The inclusion of mistletoe in these kissing boughs may have given rise to the more modern tradition of kissing under mistletoe.

In John Leech’s illustration of Mr Fezziwig’s Christmas party in A Christmas Carol  there appears to be a kissing bough hanging from the ceiling, as well as mistletoe being held by hand over a girl’s head.

Kissing aside, mistletoe may have other uses which our ancestors hardly could have imagined. While reading about the sticky viscin threads that characterize flowers like the Pink Evening Primrose, I noticed a reference to another source of the substance: mistletoe.

American mistletoe ~ Phoradendron leucarpum

Each mistletoe berry can produce up to two metres of sticky viscin threads. The substance allows the seeds of this parasitic plant to stick to and infect its hosts, like the oak trees which the Druids revered. A recent paper from McGill University and the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces suggests that, once processed, viscin’s stiff but flexible fibres, which adhere to both skin and cartilage as well as to various synthetic materials, could have a range of applications.

That discovery also was serendipitous. Matthew Harrington, a senior author on the McGill paper, wrote:

I had never seen mistletoe before living in Germany. So, when my daughter was playing with a berry from a mistletoe we bought from a local Christmas market, and it started sticking to everything, I was intrigued.

Researchers eventually discovered that viscin fibres, which stick to themselves as well as to other materials, could be stretched into thin films, making them potentially useful as wound sealant or skin covering. The fact that the viscin’s stickiness is reversible under humid conditions makes it even more interesting, and more useful.

Given the properties of its viscin-laden berries, the mistletoe draping our Texas oaks eventually may become more than an unsightly or bothersome parasite; that could be worth both a hug and a kiss.

Comments always are welcome.

A New Year, a New Pond, and New Possibilities

My New Year’s Day destination

Whether this water-filled depression truly is a pond, I can’t say. It may be akin to a vernal pool, filling and drying as conditions change. Whatever its nature, I’ve passed the spot for years without being aware of its existence, until autumn helped to open the view and a pathway to its edge became visible.

Of course I named it immediately, and if the name ‘Walden West’ seems too obvious, it felt appropriate. I’ve never seen a New England pond, let alone Walden itself, but certain characteristics of this watery depression and the woods surrounding it — isolated, self-contained, unpublicized — suggested it as the basis for a year-long project dedicated to documenting the nature of a single place and its seasonal changes.

Vibrant poison ivy at the water’s edge

When I discovered the spot last Sunday, frustration limited my explorations somewhat. I’d been distracted, and set off for the day without putting a card in my camera — a fact I discovered only after attempting to capture the view shown in the photo at the top of the page. Two hours from home and an hour away from being able to purchase another card, it seemed that photos of my new spot would have to wait.

Then, I remembered my camera phone, and Sunshine came to the rescue. Once I’d learned to keep my fingers away from the lens and queried the search engine a dozen or so times, all was well.

Lichen (possibly Usnea spp.) on a fallen limb

Today, I’ll be returning to my ‘new’ pond; it seems a perfect destination for a new year. With a card already in my camera and an open path awaiting, new discoveries are inevitable: a truth that Thoreau, that other Walden-lover, knew so well.

“It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct.
It is true, I fear, that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!
I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.


Comments always are welcome.

A Little Old, A Little New

Dwarf palmetto leaf with gold yaupon ~ Artist Boat, Galveston Island

As the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, we mark the move from one year to the next with ringing bells, fireworks, and more-or-less accomplished versions of “Auld Lang Syne.” On New Year’s Day, different human conventions hold sway. We change calendars, make resolutions, and eat special foods to ensure luck or money in the coming year.

But these are human foibles. Nature hangs no calendar and watches no clock. Old and new keep comfortable company at year’s end, and at the Artist Boat on Galveston Island, I found a lovely year-end mix.

The golden yaupon shown above — probably the cultivar known as Saratoga Gold — is a new addition to the Artist Boat landscape. Several trees line the boardwalk leading to the bird observatory now, and the birds obviously enjoy the berries.

On the other side of the boardwalk, a relative of the better-known silverleaf nightshade, known as eastern black nightshade or West Indian nightshade, bloomed prolifically. Despite its common name, it’s a Texas native, with tiny flowers only a half-inch wide when fully opened.

The day I found it blooming, great clouds of bees skillfully “buzzed” the banana-like anthers, vibrating the flowers with their bodies to encourage the flowers’ pollen to fall from the anthers’ tips.

Lovely Gaillardias were everywhere, in every stage of bud, bloom, and decline.

At least two native plants in Texas carry the name Spanish needles: Bidens bipinnata, and this lovely Bidens pilosa (also known as Bidens alba). I don’t remember finding these before, and was delighted to discover a few in a corner of the preserve.When I noticed this striking seedhead forming, it took me a minute to realize it was the same Macartney rose I’d shown blooming in a previous post. As pretty as the flower is, this seemed even more striking to me: a summery, sunny glow at the turning of the year.


Comments always are welcome.

Nature’s Christmas Trees

One of the world’s best-loved Christmas carols,Joy to the Worldincludes lines that suggest both heaven and nature celebrate the feast with their songs.

What’s less well-known is that nature, too, likes to decorate its trees a bit for the holiday. Here, an Ashe juniper shows off a simple but elegant garland.

Spanish moss dripping off the limbs of this live oak doesn’t sparkle, but it drapes as gracefully as any tinsel.

Seen against a choir of salt cedar trees, this tree-sized poverty weed wears its white fluff like old-fashioned angel hair.

Even this young possumhaw brightens the day with its collection of seasonal baubles. They may decorate its branches well into the new year, but only if the birds stop nibbling at them like children at a cookie tray.

Whether you have a tree, or many, or none in your home, nature has a multitude of trees just waiting for your admiration. If you take time to seek them out, they might even invite you to join in their singing.

Merry Christmas!


Comments always are welcome.