Romantic Notions

Credit: Terry Guscott

Ah, mistletoe…. proverbial sprig, strategically placed to entrap the unsuspecting object of one’s affection. To some folk, thoughts of these parasitic ornaments bring back memories of office, Christmas and school parties featuring kisses stolen beneath the mistletoe.

In the 21st century, we can feast on jetted-in raspberries during the winter, enjoy greenhouse-grown roses, and buy tropical Poinsettia. Forced bulbs of every description appear, along with primroses long before their appointed time, blooming away in grocery-store aisles. It seems we can have anything we want, for a price.

So there’s an atavistic pleasure in the reappearance of good old mistletoe during this yuletide season. Mistletoe was magical to our ancestors for many reasons – it thrived without roots or soil, and remained evergreen through the dead of winter. Thus, using a sickle made of gold and with accompanying reverence, Druid priests collected mistletoe at a specified sacred time according to cycles of the moon. The rubbery leaves and clusters of ghostly white berries were gathered up ceremoniously in an alabaster cloth to be used as a sort of emetic, a remedy against poison.

Speaking of poison – according to the Poison Control Centre in Vancouver, all parts of this plant are mildly poisonous, as are many holiday season plants like Poinsettia, holly and others. Search mistletoe on the Internet, and 700,000 sites purport to inform you. Beware misinformation – one site states the berries are poisonous, another only the leaves. Derivatives of mistletoe are used in somewhat controversial cancer treatments, so it is considered medicinal even in this day and age. In any case, it tastes awful and is unlikely to be ingested, but it doesn’t hurt to exercise caution with young children and pets.

For a short time during December, mistletoe is ordinarily available “fresh” in little glassine or cellophane packages at florists, nurseries, and craft shops. These stores usually stock the imitation variety, too. Stylist Heather Cameron has used preserved mistletoe purchased at Granville Island Public Market – somewhat darker green, but mistletoe nonetheless, complete with requisite folkloric qualities. Plastic mistletoe is available at hobby or craft stores, and the little berries won’t fall off into the spinach dip or the gravy tureen – a good thing.

The website offers invaluable advice regarding mistletoe etiquette. For instance, one berry should be removed from the mistletoe sprig for each kiss stolen. Available here: real mistletoe mummified in 24-karat gold, as well as the preserved variety.

The Edwardian-looking “kissing ball” (left) is fashioned using a base of round florist’s foam. A fresh take on the ubiquitous wreath, it’s a relief from the constant assault of reds and greens of the festive season and could also be made during the dreary month of February to brighten a doorway. Heather used the glaucous foliage of Hebe as the base. Various cultivars could work here, such as ‘Patty’s Purple’ or ‘Carl Teschner’. Hebe is evergreen and available year-round in your garden if you live in zone 8. Readers hailing from colder climes might use clippings of privet (Ligustrum), boxwood (Buxus), dainty and smooth-leaved Japanese holly (Ilex crenata), even the tips of cedar boughs. A couple of silver-leaved branches of eucalyptus, available at a good florist shop, rounds out the kissing ball and adds its unique medicinal aroma. Tuck in preserved mistletoe, as you like.

To attach the shrubbery, poke holes in the (wetted) foam using a bamboo skewer or knitting needle, then insert semi-woody stems, trimmed of leaves. If stems are too soft, purchase floral picks from a craft store. You can now add suitable berries from your garden, choosing those with staying power. Purple Callicarpa berries could work as long as you don’t expect them to stay on the branch for long. Otherwise, use the ersatz white plastic variety, which looks quite presentable here. Creamy white ribbon picks up the white of the mistletoe berries.

Since you must remove one mistletoe berry for each stolen kiss, a wise mistletoe crafter will keep a stash of extra berries in case of emergency! You can then replenish your kissing ball as required. Suspend it in a doorway or situate near the dinner table to generate some fascinating conversations during meals.

Speaking of dinner, Heather adorns the place setting by repeating Eucalyptus and privet (with sprigs of dried mistletoe woven in) and using ivy “flowers” to fashion napkin rings (page 20, top right). Other possibilities: yellow jinglebell-shaped buds of sweet bay laurel, purchased pepperberry or cuttings of chartreuse-splotched Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald ’n Gold’.

A coordinated mini-arrangement in a small crystal vase uses tiny fir or cedar cones. If sweet bay laurel or rosemary is still thriving in your kitchen garden in December, tuck in a few stems for their scent. Using light florist’s wire, Heather fastens mistletoe sprigs to the base of a wine glass – cheers!

Mistletoe, anchored with cedar and attached with a glue gun, adorns the grouping of wrapped presents (top left). The gorgeous “posy” is pink poinsettia gathered together, using similar greens as above (bottom left). Use caution with poinsettia blooms, avoiding the milky sap: it’s a member of the skin-irritating Euphorbiaceae family. Cedar or silky long-needled pine would also harmonize nicely. Fasten with wire and trim with mistletoe, dried or plastic. Add ribbons et voilà – one unique hostess gift.

Lastly, Heather turns her glue gun to delicate turquoise glass baubles, embellishing them with preserved mistletoe (left). The snow motif on the ball echoes the mysterious white berries.

It’s eminently satisfying to create, using bounty from your own garden. It’s extra lovely to share the crafting with a good friend over tea, coffee or eggnog. Be the first on your block to garnish your home with unique mistletoe creations this season.

Freelance writer Sharon Hanna runs the gardening program at Queen Alexandra school. Her newest venture is “HotBeds” – home food garden installations, gardening lessons – helping folks get growing in the city.