"The seasons came and went, and went and came, To teach men gratitude; and, as they passed, Grave warning of the lapse of time, that else Had stolen unheeded by. The gentle flowers Retired, and stooping o'er the wilderness, Talked of humility and peace and lore."
Of real genuine winter flowers we have none, and in their stead we introduce the Holly and the Mistletoe, the emblems of the closing year. True that here and there stray flowers of various forms may meet the eye, but they are the chance productions of favoured spots or of favoured seasons, some remnants of the past, some mayhap, like the Primrose, harbingers of the coming year, and not one of them to be depended on. We must be content with the coloured berries of the Holly and the Mistletoe.
The Holly* belongs to the regular-flowered Monopetals, and affords an illustration of the Aquifoliaceous family. It is a small bushy evergreen tree or large shrub, of erect habit, furnished with abundant leaves, which are of a shining green, thick, stalked, ovate, and much waved at the margin, where they are provided with strong coarse very prickly teeth. The leaves of the Holly however are not always prickly, especially on the upper part of the tree, which fact has led to the poetic fancy of Southey, who writes "Below, a circling fence, its leaves are seen Wrinkled and keen; No grazing cattle through their prickly round Can reach to wound; But as they grow where nothing is to fear, Smooth and unarm'd the pointless leaves appear."
* Ilex Aquifolium - Plate 21 C.
The flowers grow in dense clusters in the axils of the leaves; they are white, with a calyx of four, or rarely of five small teeth; a regular monopetalous corolla, with a short tube, and a limb deeply divided into four or five segments; as many stamens as there are lobes of calyx or corolla; and a four-celled ovary crowned by four minute sessile stigmas. The ovary becomes a bright red (sometimes yellow) berry, or rather a small drupe enclosing four nuts, containing each a single seed. These coral-coloured berries of the Holly give the plant a brilliant appearance at a time when there is little of brilliancy left to us in the vegetable world:
"Summer trees are pretty - very, And I love them all; But this Holly's glistening berry None of them excel. While the fir can warm the landscape, And the ivy clothes the wall, There are sunny days in winter After all!"
The Mistletoe* is one of the Calyciflores, and a member of the Loranthaceous family. It is a singular plant, a real parasite, growing on, and deriving its nourishment from a great variety of trees, and occurring very commonly in the south and west of England. The stems, which become woody when old, consist of repeatedly-forked succulent branches, which grow into dense tufts two or three feet in diameter, of a yellowish-green colour, attached by a thickened base to the branches of the foster trees. The leaves are narrow oblong or ovate, lanceolate, obtuse, one pair growing at the end of each branchlet. The flowers are sessile in the axils of some of these pairs of leaves, the male and female ones produced on separate plants. The males, which grow three or five together in a somewhat cup-shaped fleshy bract, are without evident calyx, but have a corolla of four ovate fleshy petals, united at the base, the anthers being sessile in the centre of the petals, and opening by several pores. The females are solitary, or rarely two or three together, in a cup-shaped bract, with an obscure entire superior calycine margin, four minute somewhat triangular petals, and a stigma sessile on the ovary. The fruit is a white semi-transparent berry, enclosing a single seed, which is surrounded by a mass of very glutinous pulp.
* Viscum album - Plate 24 D.
The Mistletoe is ever associated in our ideas with the festival of Christmas, and with the well-known custom of decorating churches and houses with evergreens at that season - a custom which has been in existence ever since Christianity has been planted amongst us, and appears to have been derived from a similar practice of the Pagans. The plant is sometimes - but now, at least, very rarely - found upon the Oak. The Druids held it in high veneration when it was seen growing on that tree; and at certain seasons, especially, it is said, at Yuletide or Christmas, they were accustomed to gather it with great solemnity. "When the end of the year approached, they marched with great solemnity to gather the Mistletoe, in order to present it to God, inviting all the world to assist at the ceremony, in these words - ' The new year is at hand, gather the Mistletoe !' Their sacrifices being ready, the priest ascended the Oak, and with a golden hook cut the Mistletoe, which was received in a white garment, spread for the purpose. Two white bulls that had never been yoked were then brought and offered to the Deity, with prayers that He would prosper those to whom He had given so precious a boon." The new year's day of the Druids did not however exactly correspond with ours, for according to Toland it was the 10th of March; and this idolatrous veneration was confined to the Mistletoe of the Oak, perhaps on account of its rarity. Now, however, "Past is the time when, bending low, Druids revered thee, Mistletoe! Error's broad shades are chased away By Revelation's brilliant ray, And superstition can no more Bid us an humble plant adore. Yet who, in hour of Christmas mirth, Can place thee o'er the social hearth, With ivy and with holly gay, Or twine thee with the fragrant bay, Nor lift with joy his heart above, Nor hymn the notes of praise and love?"
The Mistletoe has in later times been rather associated with mirth and glee, than with religious superstition - "Forth to the woods did merry men go, to gather in the Mistletoe;" and then, they "opened wide the baron's hall to vassal, tenant, serf, and all."
The popular regard in which it came to be held appears - so says Mr. Lees - "to have arisen from a superstition extending back as far as Druidical times, when the young bride wore a branch of Mistletoe suspended from her neck, which was supposed (as it was considered a remedy against barrenness) to ensure an offspring as numerous as the spotless berries produced by the plant itself. So that formerly it seems to have been the exact converse of the dreaded Willow; for while those that had lost their loves were conducted to that hopeless barren tree, or, at least, recommended to sojourn beneath its shade, those damsels who were not in such an unfortunate predicament were either merrily or strategetically escorted to the Mistletoe, whose berries being pure white, of course could not fail to intimate the bridal wreath and white satin ribbon. Archdeacon Nares, who has written very learnedly on this subject, and seems to be a great friend to the mystic rites of the Mistletoe, deprecates any unreasonable resistance on the part of ladies taken to or caught under the sacred plant; as he states that a non-performance of the usual ceremonial brings in its train all the evils of old-maiden-ism" - whatever they may be. It appears that in the berries of the plant alone resided its privilege; one of these was to be plucked at every salute, and various authorities insist that when the last berry was plucked from the bush its potential and venerated character ceased.
The habit of the Mistletoe is very peculiar. Unlike the Ivy, which like it grows upon trees, but derives support only, and not nourishment, from that to which it has attached itself, the Mistletoe is a true parasite, sucking the vitals of its prop. It is doubtless planted by those members of the feathered tribe, the mistle-thrush especially, which feed upon its berries, the viscid juice causing the seeds to adhere to the under side of the branches when brought in contact with them by the birds in the process of cleaning their bills. . In this position the seeds germinate, and the young plants insinuate their root-point into the sap-wood of the tree, forming there, instead of roots, in each case, an ever-active sucker, by means of which they appropriate to themselves the juices of the tree on which they grow.
It is a rather singular coincidence that the two plants so intimately associated in our Christmas festivities should be also associated by their products. Thus the viscid substance called birdlime is obtained, by maceration and trituration, not only from the bark of the young shoots of the Holly, but also from the glutinous berries of the Mistletoe.
Though wild flowers are wanting in the cheerless winter, and we have been content to record the Holly and Mistletoe as illustrations of the hiemal flora (albeit at that season it is their fruits and not their flowers which are their attractive features), the field botanist is not to conclude that the winter is to him a period barren of interest, for at that season the Cryptogamic tribes abound in full perfection. There are the Fungi, with their various forms and brilliant colours, as Mr. Berkeley's 'Outlines of British Fungology' bears evidence, - its glowing pictures and its stores of information being enough to tempt every reader to become a fungologist. There are the Lichens, those time-stains of grey and yellow, which give a venerable air to wall and tower, or paint the rock with tints of orange or sienna. And then there are the Mosses, green and beautiful plant miniatures, abounding everywhere, on moors and rocks, in woods and fields, on walls, by streams, in bogs, wherever the soil or atmosphere is moist, so that no mean portion of the earth's clothing is furnished by them. These, and more than these, of the cryptogamic stores, which Nature spreads before her votaries even in the bleak and barren winter, furnish material for a life-time study, and are full of interest for those who deign to study them. Our task, however, is accomplished, and we can only point out these as fresh fields and pastures new, to those who can brace their nerves for a pleasant winter's ramble.
"These as they change, Almighty Father, these Are but the varied God. The rolling year Is full of thee. Forth in the pleasant Spring Thy beauty walks, thy tenderness and love Wide flush the fields; the softening air is balm; Echo the mountains round; the forest smiles; And every sense and every heart is joy. Then comes thy glory in the Summer months, With light and heat refulgent. Then thy sun Shoots full perfection through the swelling year; And oft thy voice in dreadful thunder speaks, And oft at dawn, deep noon, or falling eve, By brooks and groves in hollow-whispering gales. Thy bounty shines in Autumn unconfined, And spreads a common feast for all that lives. In Whiter awful thou! With clouds and storms Around thee thrown, cempest o'er tempest rolled, Majestic darkness ! On the whirlwind's wing Riding sublime, thou bid'st the world adore, And humblest nature with thy northern blast.
So roll your incense, herbs, and fruits, and flowers, In mingled clouds to Him, whose sun exalts, Whose breath perfumes you, and whose pencil paints."