Mistletoe on apple tree

Photographs: Charles Francis


December 2016: There will be much carousing and banging of drums in the orchards at Cotehele seven days before Christmas. This traditional wassail ceremony is all about encouraging the trees to produce a good crop of apples next year, says head gardener David Bouch, with a smile. “We celebrate the oldest tree and the youngest tree by decorating them with ribbons — and with toast to attract the robin, the guardian of the orchard,” he explains. “Then we pour cider round the trees and shout and scream to banish evil spirits!”

The oldest apple tree

There is a long tradition of apple-growing in the Tamar Valley, and the modern-day orchards at the National Trust estate are thriving, just as their ancestors did. The old orchard was established in the 1950s and is home to 60 apple trees of mixed varieties, along with a few cherries, walnuts and medlars.

Newton Wonder apples

There are also 400 trees in the Mother Orchard, which was created in 2007, and almost all are from the Tamar Valley or elsewhere in Cornwall.

Many of the trees in both orchards are hosts of mistletoe, and right now, the plant’s green leaves and clear white berries are like a promise of spring in midwinter.

Mistletoe berries

There are around 250 varieties of mistletoe, but only one — Viscum album — is native to Britain, and Cotehele is one of very few locations in Cornwall where it grows in such profusion: it is mostly found in the Midlands and the Welsh borders.

Mistletoe seeds germinate on the branches of trees or shrubs, and it is commonly thought of as a parasitic plant, but the relationship is actually symbiotic, as Cotehele’s head gardener David Bouch explains. “Mistletoe takes nutrients from the tree, but it doesn’t damage it. It also provides food for wildlife. You see mistlethrushes, fieldfares and all sorts of other birds feeding on the berries at Christmas.”

For several years, David and his team have been sustainably harvesting the mistletoe in the Cotehele orchards, as it was becoming so vigorous that, although it was not harming the apple trees, it was slowing down their growth. “We prune it out from the centre of the tree, but leave it on the outlying branches,” he says. “Christmas is a good time to harvest it, as all the leaves have fallen off the trees, so you can see where it is. It’s quite a fun job cutting a few sprigs off. In the Mother Orchard, we take away all the mistletoe, because the trees there need time to establish, but in 15 or 20 years’ time, we’ll let some of it grow.

“When we harvest, we make sure we take out an equal part of male and female plants. The male plant doesn’t have any berries on it, so we compost it. Then our volunteers tie the female plants in small bunches with a ribbon round them, and visitors can buy a small bunch for a few pounds. All the money we make goes back into the orchards.”

Although mistletoe has a particular affinity with apples, at Cotehele it has also been spotted growing in the branches of hawthorn — another member of the roseacae family — and sycamore. “Mistletoe certainly loves Cotehele,” says David — although he admits that the reasons for this are not known.

It is part of the fascination of the plant that it remains so mysterious. Mistletoe was revered by the Druids for its apparently magical ability to grow spontaneously between earth and sky, and was regarded as a cure for almost any ailment — and as an aphrodisiac. And because it is in its fruitful prime when so many other plants are dormant, it has traditionally played a prominent role in ceremonies taking place around the time of the winter solstice: wassailers often put a sprig on their hats or used it as a buttonhole.

The lost tradition of wassailing at Cotehele was something David was keen to revive when he arrived 11 years ago. “I thought it would be a brilliant thing to do — but I didn’t know where to start. The following day, I got a call from the local Calstock Band, saying they used to have a wassail here and how would they go about starting a new one?

“The first time we did it, there was just myself and my family and the band members, but it worked, and it was great fun. The second year, a few more people came. Now we get about 350. A lot are from the local community walk here, but others come from much further away. Wassailing often takes place on Twelfth Night and in the dark, but we do it close to the winter solstice, in daylight, to bring in as many people as possible.”

“We have an Obby Oss leading the procession, 15 to 20 members of the band playing accordions, flutes and drums, and the singing of the Cotehele Wassail — which was composed by the band — as the procession goes from the garden into the orchard. There will be a bit of Cornish dancing. A lot of people come in fancy dress: we’ve had Saxon knights in full chain mail.”

David remembers the bitterly cold December of 2010, when there was heavy snowfall the week before Christmas. “We decided we wouldn’t have a wassail, as no one would be able to get here — but people started phoning and saying: ‘Is it still on?’ We went ahead, and it was really good. The band came in a four by four, and some people walked from the Who’d Have Thought It Inn.”

His advice to everyone interested in joining the wassailing is: ”Wear a silly hat, and bring something to make a noise with, like a wooden spoon and a pot, or anything you can find!”

Wassail jug

Drinks are offered to the assembled company: a choice of apple juice or the potent and aromatic wassail beverage. After drinking the health of the trees, visitors can retreat to the warmth of the Tudor hall — and stop at the shop to buy a bunch or two of home-grown mistletoe.