Post image for Mistletoe, Album viscum

Mistletoe, Album viscum

December 21, 2010

It is not clear where the word mistletoe comes from. It may be related to German Mist for dung and Tang for branch since the seeds are mostly disseminated through the faeces of birds as they fly from tree to tree. Its Latin name Viscum refers to the stickiness of the berries and album refers to their pale colour.

There are many species of Mistletoes, Viscum album, the European Mistletoe, being the most common one in Britain. Although Viscum album is a poisonous plant, it is widely harvested for Christmas decorations. It is also used in the preparation of some herbal remedies. It has come into the making of some bird traps because of the stickiness quality of the berries.

Although Mistletoe was often considered a pest as a parasitic plant killing its host tree, its place is now valued within the ecological balance of its environment. It certainly figures prominently in various cultural and historical references around the world. In pre-Christian Europe, thanks to the resemblance between the berries and semen, Mistletoe symbolised romance, fertility and vitality in the male population.

Records of Mistletoe being used as a Christmas decoration go back to the 18th century. According to the custom, it mustn’t touch the ground between its cutting and its disposal after Candlemas although it may remain hanging till the following Christmas Eve as a protection against lightning, fire and evil spirits.

According to Christmas custom, any young man meeting a girl under a hanging of mistletoe may kiss her, plucking a berry off the branch. The privilege stops when all the berries have gone.

Painting the subject ‘botanically’ presents a few challenges. First, composition: it would be difficult to show the habit of the plant as Mistletoe grows into an intricate large ball of a fair size. Botanical illustration requires the artist to paint the subject life size as much as possible. When painting one single twig or two you can be forgiven for choosing any angle, yet the preferred picture for Misletoe shows the twig hanging down or sometimes pointing upwards.

Another challenge is to convey the rubber-like flexibility of the leaves as opposed to the rigidity of the ribbed stalks and the turgidity of the waxy berries. The plant may be all green (I always find it difficult to mix the exact shade of green) but the colour changes slightly as the sample ages in front of you. The same happens with the berries: they are thought to be white but in front of a white background, they can show up as pale green or yellow. Again, the colour changes with time.

Then, like with all plants, careful examination with a magnifying lens or even with a specialist microscope, many structures come to notice that give an accurate identity to the sample and which have to be acknowledged somehow in the picture.

Mistletoe, Album viscum

Mistletoe, a painting by Annie Thom

Painting botanically is very exciting as it demands concentration and minute observation. Unlike with ‘flower painting’, there is no licence to adapt the work to satisfy an outside requirement. The artist has to be able to represent the plant material most faithfully with the quality of detail worthy of a well focused camera. The improvement over a camera shot is that the entire picture painted does not show any blurring in any area of the work. Executing a botanical painting takes many hours over weeks sometimes and there, the artist has to get over the problem of the freshness of the sample. Peeping into a botanical painter’s fridge will at times reveal tall plastic containers holding this precious twig or that orchid with an express warning: “do not move or else!”.

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