Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Mystery of Mistletoe

Does everyone but me already know where mistletoe comes from?

I was in France for 19 days from the end of October and I crisscrossed my way by train from Paris to Brittany, then to the Loire Valley and back to Paris. I was meeting up with friends for the last two legs, but I didn't feel comfy renting a car alone in a country where I know about 20 words. About 15 of those words are food-related. If I got pulled over, I'd probably blurt out, "Bon Appetit, Grande Fromage, I mean Gendarme!" So, I hopped the I did in 1983, with my backpack, camera, journal and some maps.

On the two trains from Paris to St. Malo, Brittany, I had 3 hours to think about how I could have let 27 years go by without returning to France, and how different this trip would feel. Aside from the Franc morphing into the Euro and the fact that I had credit cards and a global-enabled cell phone with e-mail access...there was Woody Allen in the seat back pocket, on the cover of TGV Magazine. I guess we're never really far from home, are we?

The countryside was whizzing by, and it was just gorgeous. Undulating sunlit fields glowing green with grapeseed. Small towns, neat limestone houses and endless pastures with cream-colored cows. Then, I kept seeing funny looking trees! They looked so cartoonish. That's why I love to travel...I keep seeing things I've never seen before in my "whole life" which is hopefully on this side of the halfway mark.

I was thinking, "what is in those trees?!" There are no koala bears in France. In New York City, garbage bags get tangled in tree branches, a cat might scramble up and flocks of birds hang out...but these trees looked like something Tim Burton would draw.

Turns out, it's mistletoe! A local man told me that it's a parasite, mostly found in fruit orchards, but can be found on thorny trees as well. It can kill branches and compromise a tree's health, but mostly, the tree is an unwitting host. Mistletoe is cultivated in Northern France (Bingo--that's where I was seeing it!) and sold at Christmastime. The sticky seeds attach to a bird's feathers and legs, and is also found in the guano (poop.) The seeds graft themselves onto branches, and the mistletoe starts to grow. Farmers also place the seeds, for multiple balls to grow. It can take 5 years for a ball to mature...and the product would not support a sole income. It's mainly a side business for orchard owners.

Photo courtesy of Veronika Johnston. Mistletoe at Tubingen Market, Germany.

Are you fascinated? When you buy a Kissing Ball or a sprig of mistletoe at the farmer's market or garden center, think of me. Oops, I meant, if the label says "Made in France" it might have come from one of these very trees. Isn't that cool?

Let the holidays begin!

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