Monday, 22 December 2008


Mistletoe growing in Oxford Botanic Gardens

Travelling south on the train near Bristol I was surprised to see trees festooned with quite large quantities of mistletoe (Viscum album). I don't know why I was surprised, since it's not uncommon in the south of England, but I've spent so much time in the north that I just don't expect to see it, I suppose. With my interest in folklore it's not surprising that I've always rather wanted to grow it, and always lived in the wrong places.

I think most people know about its pagan associations and have a mental picture of it being sought by druids in oak groves for use in their rituals, where it had to be cut with a golden sickle to preserve its qualities. Such images probably arise from Europe, since in England it's rare for it to grow on oak, being much more common in old apple orchards, and therefore somewhat under threat, as our old orchards are a dying breed. Mistletoe is difficult to get established, which is why I'm not wasting my time trying to persuade it to adopt one of its alternative host plants, although I would be happy to see some of our hawthorns supporting this particular parasite. Not, I might add, that any plant in our garden is allowed to bear its berries for more than a day or two, before hoards of marauding blackbirds descend to strip them.

Here for your delectation is a link to a mistletoe blog – who would have thought there was such a thing? It, and the accompanying Mistletoe Pages will tell you far more than I ever could about this fascinating plant. As usual, though, Christmas in our house will be mistletoe-free.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

What I like about Christmas...

A simple thing, but I was enjoying my contemplation of this basket of goodies, and reluctant to end the pleasure by actually starting to wrap presents. However, final posting dates loomed, as does my imminent departure for southern climes, and yesterday I thought I had better make a start. Now, thank goodness, various parcels should be en route to friends and family, a bag sits ready for the Devon visit, and even the family packages are enveloped in tissue and tasteful silk plissé ribbon (well, apart from those that are still on their way from Amazon). Because, of course, I have been utterly stupid, in committing myself to a filial visit the weekend before Christmas - what was I thinking? When am I going to make the mince pies and sausage rolls required by my own dear children? What about the Christmas cake? (Yes, indeed, it's much to late to even contemplate now, it should have been steeping in brandy for the past month.) Because on Christmas Eve, when I get back, I am going to be hoovering, making beds, tackling endless quantities of washing and cleaning out the chickens. The gentle ritual of making cheese straws while listening to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols - you're joking, I shall to be rehanging the bathroom curtains. Ho hum (bug).

Friday, 5 December 2008

The Children of Lir

These creatures of the mist are whooper swans - cygnus cygnus - the Children of Lir, and winter visitors from Iceland and Scandinavia. I first saw them in Perthshire when I was eleven or so, when we walked across the hills to see them on Loch Moraig (you can see a photo of them on the loch here). It was a special day, and I fell in love with the romance of the swans on the water, and their wild wailing.

Last weekend, however, it was on a misty loch in the Scottish Borders that I took this picture. Sadly my camera battery was failing, and I was too slow to photograph the group that flew past mere yards away, just as I was too slow some days later when five flew past our kitchen window, honking mournfully. Nearby Berwick is famous for its huge wintering flock of mute swans, and I love to see them, but the whoopers are special, second only to unicorns. Fated to spend 900 years as swans, the Children of Lir were transformed by their stepmother Aoife, but were allowed to retain their human voices when she felt some remorse for her dreadful act:

And the Sons of the Gael used to be coming no less than the Men of Dea to hear them from every part of Ireland, for there never was any music or any delight heard in Ireland to compare with that music of the swans. And they used to be telling stories, and to be talking with men of Ireland every day, and with their teachers and their fellow-pupils and their friends. And every night they used to sing very sweet music of the Sidhe; and every one that heard that music would sleep sound and quiet whatever trouble or long sickness might be on him; for every one that heard the music of the birds, it is happy and contented he would be after it. (Lady Gregory, The Fate of the Children of Lir)