A Little Mistletoe History

The Facts: Botanically speaking, mistletoe is a ‘hemiparasite,’ which means it’s capable of producing its own food by photosynthesis but often/also sends out roots that penetrate the branches or trunk of the host tree in order to steal nutrients. Because it’s an evergreen that cozies up in deciduous trees, we notice it more often in the winter time once host tree leaves have fallen. The seeds are spread through bird droppings – sometimes it is so high up in trees it gets “harvested” by shotgun! .

The Folklore: So how did a parasite become a symbol and tradition during holiday festivities? Some say the answer lies in Norse Mythology. In ancient Scandinavia, if enemies met by chance beneath mistletoe in the forest, they would lay down their arms and hold a truce until the next day. This custom went hand-in-hand with the Norse myth or Baldur, whose mother, Frigga, made every object, animal and plant promise not to harm her son except mistletoe, which she overlooked. After a Norse god killed Baldur, with a spear fashioned from mistletoe that brought winter into the world, his mother declared the plant sacred. Baldur was eventually resurrected and Frigga ordered that any two people passing beneath it must celebrate Baldur’s life by kissing.

The Footnote??: In more recent history, Washington Irving wrote about a now often-overlooked aspect of the mistletoe tradition in a footnote of “Christmas Eve”

“The mistletoe is still hung up in farm-houses and kitchens at Christmas, and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases.” 

Those berries, by the way, probably shouldn’t be eaten. Quite a few sources say they are poisonous despite the fact that they have long been considered an aphrodisiac.

Bug-Lover Walks Onto a Production Farm

“Oooooohh look at this happy little caterpillar I found! I’m just going to move him over to the fennel where he will have plenty to eat, k?”

Not exactly. Although the pollinating butterflies these cuties become are very welcome at organic production farms, their larva stage is better nurtured in say… a nearby demonstration garden or conservancy. Lucky for me, I just landed a gig working in a new Loudon County, VA community, Willowsford, built around conservation, sustainable cultivation, real food, really cool farmers, and a really great garden.

Chances are, I will be doing a lot of posts born from experiences at Willowsford Farm throughout the 2012 growing season so for now, here are the top ten highlights from Week One:

10.) The masterminds behind this community are incredibly down-to-earth, determined, and committed to conservation as much as they are committed to the growth of the farm (in terms of acreage, value-added products, biodiversity, and profitability).
9.) The bees and their keeper are going to be producing local honey and educate the community on the importance of pollinators.
8.) The garden is bonkers amazing and already includes: tons of berry bushes, herbs, fruit trees, tomatoes, flowers, and gated entrances as adorable as the open-air structure slated for a classroom/market/shed.
7.) Somehow, I have not picked up a single tick yet – which leads me to number six…
6.) Not only is there deer fencing around the farm – it is around the garden too!
5.) There are tons of Mexican sunflowers, zinnias, and other butterfly-attracting plants in rows between tomatoes, peppers and other edibles which makes times spent harvesting extra beautiful.
4.) Pretty much all-you-can-eat  fresh and healthy “seconds” all day long.
3.) Everyone I have met is keen on bringing our beloved Eco-Goats out to help clear weeds!
2.) Fellow Farmers: Nick, Jen and Kathryn and Farm Manager Mike Snow are pure sunshine – even in the hardest, back-breaking moments, and have gone far out of their way to teach me tricks of the trade, welcome me to the team, and accept the fact that they may have to kill my share of tomato horn worms.

And the number one thing to come out of Willowsford this week (worthy of a photo):

1.) Husk Tomatoes. Sometimes called “Ground Tomatoes” because you harvest them from the ground once they have fallen off of the plant. If you have not yet tried one, step away from the computer and head to the closest farmers market.