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And should my youth, as youth is apt I know,
All vain asperities I day by day
Would wear away,
Till the smooth temper of my age should be
And as when all the summer trees are seen
The holly leaves a sombre hue display,
But when the bare and wintry woods we see,
So serious should my youth appear among
So would I seem amid the young and gay
That in my age as cheerful I might be
The misletoe, or misseltoe, receives the Latin name of viscum from viscus, bird-lime, on account of the sticky nature of the berries. This plant is perennial, often existing to a great age. The root by which it becomes firmly attached to a tree is thick and woody; the stem is bushy and thickly jointed, but very smooth, as are also the leaves. These are of a lance-shape, but become broader and blunt at the extremity. The flowers are yellowish, seated on the stem; the berries white. In Herefordshire and Worcestershire, and wherever apple trees are cultivated to a considerable extent, the misletoe is common; but in other situations it is less frequent. The plant is often cut from the trees in severe winters and given to sheep, who devour it with great eagerness, and who are popularly said to be thereby preserved from the disease called the rot.
The common lime-tree, the black poplar, the apple-tree,
and the oak are subject to this parasite, but the misletoe of the oak is now very rarely seen. A few specimens are occasionally found, and these are sufficient to prove that the oak does sometimes harbour this guest, as in the days of the Druids, but the greater proportion of misletoe is found on the apple-tree, in the cider counties. In France this plant is very abundant on the almond-tree, and is common on many other trees. In Spain, and also in the neighbourhood of Jerusalem, it infests the olive.
Perhaps it was on account of the rarity of the misletoe found on the oak, that it was held in so much greater estimation than that obtained from other trees. The Greeks and Romans were not ignorant of this plant. Pliny speaking of that of the oak, says, "The Gauls held this in the highest veneration; and their magicians, whom they call Druids, consider nothing more sacred." The Druidical rites of the ancient Britons have been often described: those relating to the use of the misletoe are not the least interesting among them. The original cause of the respect paid to this plant can scarcely be penetrated at this distant era; but it is certain that its magical powers were believed in by Virgil and Ovid, and that the legends of the Saxons favoured the idea of its extraordinary properties. "We find," says Mr. Christie," by the allusion of Virgil, who compared the golden bough in infernis to the misletoe, that the use of this plant was not unknown in the religious ceremonies of the ancients, particularly the Greeks, of whose poets he was the acknowledged imitator."
In the gathering of the plant at the commencement of their year, we learn that the Druid priests went in solemn procession into the forests, where they raised a grass altar at the foot of the finest oak: they also inscribed on the trunk of the tree the names of the most powerful among their deities. The chief Druid, clad in white robes, then ascended the tree, bearing a consecrated golden pruninghook, with which he cropped the misletoe, and dropped it into a pure white cloth, held out beneath the tree by the remaining priests. If any part of the plant touched the ground, it was considered to be an omen of some dire misfortune about to fall upon the land. This ceremony was performed when the moon was six days old, and when it was
concluded, a sacrifice was made of two white bulls. Another account of the ceremony, slightly differing from this, is given by Stukely in the "Medallic History of Carausius: ""This (Christmas) was the most respectable festival of our Druids, called yule tide, when misletoe, which they called 'all-heal,' was carried in their hands, and laid upon their altars, as an emblem of the salutiferous advent of Messiah. The misletoe they cut off the trees with their upright hatchets of brass, called celts, and put upon the ends of their staffs, which they carried in their hands. Innumerable are these instruments, found all over the British isles. The custom," he adds, "is still preserved in the north, and was lately at York. On the eve of Christmas-day, they carry misletoe to the high altar of the Cathedral, and proclaim a public and universal liberty, pardon, and freedom to all sorts of inferior or wicked people at the gates of the city towards the four quarters of heaven." In agreement with the latter part of this notice are the lines of Gay, noticing the evergreens used in decking churches at Christmas:
When Rosemary and Bays, the poet's crown,
Are bawl'd in frequent cries through all the town;
Yet Mr. Brand, noticing the above, is still of opinion that misletoe was never put up in churches except by mistake or ignorance of the sextons, it being a heathenish and profane plant, distinguished in pagan rites. Many inquiries made on the subject confirmed him in this opinion. An old sexton at Teddington in Middlesex told him that some misletoe was once put up in the church there, but the clergyman immediately ordered it to be removed. But it is certain that the misletoe was gathered with much solemnity on Christmas eve during the feudal ages, and hung up in the great hall with loud shouts of rejoicing.
On Christmas eve the bells were rung;
The damsel donned her kirtle sheen :
Then opened wide the baron's hall
The custom of hanging up the entire plant in the kitchens of farm-houses, &c., at Christmas, is still retained in many parts of the country. The use of the misletoe, besides that already named, is for making birdlime from the berries and bark, but the holly is said to answer the purpose better. The plant was also formerly employed as a remedy for epilepsy, but is now discarded from the materia medica. The blackbird, fieldfare and thrush feed on its berries, especially the large species called the missel-thrush. This bird is considered as the chief instrument in the propagation of the misletoe. After feeding on the berries, it wipes off such as may adhere to the outer part of the beak, by rubbing it against a branch of the tree on which it have happened to alight at the close of its repast. Some of the seeds are thus left on the bark, and if it should prove a fitting receptacle for them, they germinate and root into it in the following spring. Several writers, both ancient and modern, had entertained the opinion that the misletoe was propagated by the excrements of birds which had fed on the berries. It was our own naturalist, Ray, who first suggested the idea of trying whether the seed would vegetate without passing through the body of the bird, and when was first tried by a London apothecary it was attended with complete success. This gentleman inserted a seed of the misletoe into the bark of a white poplar-tree which grew in his garden, and it germinated there. This was afterwards done by many persons on different trees, with the same result, and at length Du Hamel proved that these seeds would germinate anywhere, provided they had sufficient moisture. Thus he made them sprout on living trees, on dead branches, bricks, tiles, stones, and in the earth; but none of the plants existed long except those on living trees.
As this plant thus derives its subsistence entirely from the branch to which it is annexed, it is natural to suppose that considerable injury results from the union. Both the ascending and returning sap is partially absorbed by the
parasite, and therefore the strength of the branch cannot fail to be impaired. Where several plants occupy the same branch, they often deprive it of its nourishment so effectually as to cause its death and eventually their own. In the cider counties, the misletoe is therefore looked upon as an enemy, and by most cultivators is carefully removed from the appletrees as soon as it develops itself. It seems indeed to flourish with extraordinary luxuriance on the apple-tree, and in natural circumstances is supposed to exist as long as the tree itself. The largest plant of misletoe ever seen by the writer occupied the centre of an aged apple-tree, itself of most unusual proportions. The propagation of the misletoe has lately been attempted in nurseries. In the "Gardener's Magazine," it is recorded that Mr. Moss, of Malvern, near Worcester, has invented an excellent plan of raising the misletoe by engrafting it standard high on young apple and pear-trees in his nursery. The grafts are introduced in the first or second weeks in May, and are never lower than five feet, nor higher than ten feet from the ground. Where the graft is not more than half an inch in diameter, an incision is made in the bark, into which a thin slice of misletoe is inserted, having a bud and leaf at the end. In grafting longer pieces, a notch is cut out of the branch, an incision made below it, and a shoulder left on the graft, to rest on the notch, in the manner of crown-grafting. It is necessary to observe that the spaces between the joints will not do for grafting; there must be a joint let into the bark of the stock. About the middle of May is the best time for budding; and the operation differs in retaining a heel of wood below the bud for insertion. After apple and peartrees, the next best stocks for raising the misletoe are stronggrowing willow and poplar.