Climate change at Christmas: did the hot, dry summer of 2018 cause the record-breaking prices of holly and mistletoe?

Over the past two festive seasons I have posted about the research we published assessing the auction prices of holly and mistletoe, two culturally important seasonal crops that are 100% pollinator dependent for berry production.  The first post was called Insect pollinators boost the market price of holly and mistletoe: a new study just published; the second was The holly, the mistletoe, and the pollinators: an update on an old story.

Follow those two links to get the full background to this research and a link to the original paper published in the Journal of Pollination Ecology.

I’ve collated the auction prices for the 2018 season and added them to the time series data set, and it’s clear that something very interesting has occurred.  Both berried holly and mistletoe have achieved record-breaking average prices, whilst auction prices for material without berries have hardly changed at all.  Here are the updated graphs; each data point is the average price per kilo paid at an auction:

Holly and mistletoe prices 2018

So what’s gone on this year?  What could have affected the auction prices?  One interesting possibility is that the long, dry summer of 2018, a likely consequence of climate change, has negatively affected berry production in these two species.  This could come about if the holly or the mistletoe host trees are water stressed and shed part of their berry crops.  It’s unlikely to be a consequence of too few pollinators as these species flower too early in the year to have been affected by the dry weather.   We have more work planned in the future using these data and this will be an interesting question to address.

Yesterday I popped out to do some Christmas shopping and tried to buy mistletoe at a local garden centre.  That’s the second time I’ve tried this year (the first was at a nearby green grocer’s) and the second time that I’ve been told that they have none because it’s very expensive this year and not worth stocking.  That seems predictable from the wholesale auction results I’ve just described.  Has anyone else in the UK had similar experiences this year?

The British holly and mistletoe market is relatively small and clearly seasonal, and probably not worth more than a few millions of pounds each year.  However it seems to be very sensitive to external factors and may be a microcosm for how some crops, at least, might respond to future extreme weather brought about by climate change.  Brexit might also have an effect in the coming years as we import a large amount of mistletoe from northern France.  But then Brexit is going to have an effect on large areas of British society…..

On that sour note, Happy Christmas to all of my readers, however you voted in the referendum.  I hope you have a restful holiday, spending it as you wish, with the people you want to!  And if you, or someone you know, are spending the festive season on your own this year, take a look at Karin’s latest blog post:  Preparing a Christmas Just For You.

14 thoughts on “Climate change at Christmas: did the hot, dry summer of 2018 cause the record-breaking prices of holly and mistletoe?

  1. hilarymb

    Hi Jeff – thanks for the link across to Karin – I’m now following her. I’m now back in the UK – so your posts will be relevant as our lives rush forward into the unknown; I must check whether the flower seller here has mistletoe this year … have a happy festive seasons – cheers Hilary

  2. Jonathan Briggs

    Jeff, I’ve left a reply to your comment on my blog already, but I’ll say it again here, there are no or negligible mistletoe lots with no berries at Tenbury Auctions – so I have serious concerns about the validity of your ‘berryless’ data. And, on my observations, it’s been a very good year for mistletoe berries this season, not a problem year at all, so I’d also challenge the assumption that there is a shortage of good material. For what it’s worth I’d additionally argue that Tenbury prices are not indicative of the whole mistletoe supply system, the vast majority of mistletoe in shops is not from Tenbury. Tenbury prices, I would suggest, fluctuate due to a multitude of factors and cannot be taken as representative of the national mistletoe supply picture. The Tenbury set-up is just a snapshot of a local market.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      To repeat what I said on your post Jonathan: As you’ll see from the paper, the information about the 2nd class material having fewer berries came from the auctioneers themselves. We took that information in good faith and assumed that there were significantly fewer berries on the second class material, using the short hand “mistletoe without berries”. We have further work on this planned in the future and it would be good to use your expertise in this regard.

      As for the other points you raise, we are using the Tenbury auctions as a microcosm for how pollinators affect the value of culturally important crops via the provision of the ecosystem service of pollination to produce fruit. That’s the main thrust of what we are doing with the auction data rather than being concerned with annual fluctuations in prices per se. That, and the climate change aspect, is purely an interesting observation that came out of this year’s data.

      Having said that, something has significantly driven up this year’s prices at the auction, and there are indeed fewer lots this year compared to previous years, so availability of good material seems to be part of the cause. The prices of retail mistletoe are also higher this year – I paid £2.50 for a small bunch that in recent years would have cost me £1.50 to £2.00. And retailers are telling me that there’s less material about. I’m aware that a lot (most?) of the mistletoe in this country comes from abroad, especially northern France. But all of northern Europe was affected by the summer drought, so I think my logic is sound in that regard.

  3. Jonathan Briggs

    I should add, perhaps, that I have had a long involvement at Tenbury, visiting the auctions every years since at least 1992, and closely involved in the set-up of the Tenbury Mistletoe Festival and National Mistletoe Day 10+ years ago. Those promote Tenbury as the nation’s ‘mistletoe capital’ but that is media exercise to help promote the town, it’s not an indication that this place is a key indicator of mistletoe prices. Indeed my involvement in retail selling of mistletoe online for 10 years from 2004-2015 would suggest that retail prices stayed more or less the same across that period, and judging by other online retailers prices today are still fairly stable, increase reflecting inflation (most retail costs for mistletoe are handling and packaging, not the raw material). For the auctions one could argue that media attention may affect prices as much as anything. Or that prices reflect harvesting weather etc. Also number of lots on offer, obviously.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Yes, I’m aware of your experience in this regard which was why I tried to get in touch with you a few years ago before we published the paper, to get your opinion on it. I never got a reply so perhaps you didn’t get the message?

      I’d agree with you that prices stayed constant over that 10 year period, that’s what my post from last year showed:

      As I said in the other comment, this year high street prices are rather higher than in previous years. Would be interesting to compare that with online trends.

      But just to reiterate, the annual fluctuations in prices are, to me, less important than the relative increase in values that are the result of insect pollination, that’s what fascinates me about holly and mistletoe. I’d still like to involve you in our future work in a consultancy capacity and I’ll be in touch later in the New Year to see if you are interested.

      1. Jonathan Briggs

        Thanks for the reply Jeff. Re taking the auctioneers information, they did not tell you the 2nd Quality were berryless, only that berry numbers were a part of the attraction. Indeed I’m not even sure Nick Champion classifies lots as 1st or 2nd Quality before sale, so it may be a construct mad after the sales. But they will not be berryless.

        As for using Tenbury auction prices there are, as I said, many many other factors – you can’t put price rises at the door of pollination. One key factor that I’ve been pointing out for years – decades even that the amount of mistletoe available to crop is decreasing. Because all the cropped mistletoe comes from old-style orchards and those are decreasing. The species is doing fine, but the crop-able material is not. That’s complicated though, as many neglected orchards in mistletoe country now have a heavy crop of mistletoe though neglect. That could increase the crop – if those were cropped. Which they might not be. There are many other factors to consider too.

        Re comments from retailers – most don’t know! Most of them haven’t a clue about availability. I wouldn’t ever take a casual comment from a retailer as being accurate. And I’d say this year was excellent, in quality terms for mistletoe, and so it should be cheap.

      2. jeffollerton Post author

        I think we’re talking at cross purposes here Jonathan – I never said that the increase in prices this year was due to pollinators. What we are interested in is the price difference between material with berries and material without berries, which is due to the activities of pollinators given that these species are dioecious (but also taking your point that “berryless” mistletoe does have berries, just fewer and other factors affect that price).

        The retailers’ comments related to them specifically not being able to get hold of material from wholesalers.

      3. Jonathan Briggs

        I don’t recall a contact, sorry if I missed it. I would be happy to discuss the issues sometime. I do think you’re looking at these auction data too simplistically though and I’m not sure they are deserving of such attention. And retail prices are very tricky – as how do you measure quantity/quality with these? For individual online dealers something may be possible, but for general high street data you’re going to need much more than a few casual comments.

  4. Jonathan Briggs

    Re my pollinator comment, sorry, that was me being in need of a coffee! I was meaning climate change in general can’t be considered the main factor. Other factors, particularly simple availability of crop-able mistletoe, are just as important, maybe much more so. Without even discussing those the analysis is flawed. And I do dispute your interpretation of the difference in prices 1st to 2nd, as being primarily due to berry numbers. There is always what I would call ‘rubbish’ mistletoe sold at Tenbury – but that’s yellowing, leggy etc, not just or not even fewer berries (and never berryless). It’s the whole plant’s appearance that is the main wow factor, not just the berries.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      OK, I take your point and that’s something we can dissect if we do some further work on this. But I think the bigger picture is still valid: pollinators add considerable value to mistletoe, regardless of whether the comparison with 2nd class material is justified or not.


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