Quelle horreur! English kisses beneath French mistletoe?

"It's getting harder to find English mistletoe," said Nick Champion, an auctioneer in the country's biggest market for the white-berried foliage."The French are sending so much mistletoe in that it's ruining the market, they're driving the price down."

This year, mistletoe is selling for the equivalent of $1.17 a pound, down from $1.56 last year. English farmers grumble about unfair play within the European Union's common market.

"They don't want to buy our beef and lamb, but they're happy to sell us their mistletoe," farmer Brian Smith said.

Three years ago, lambs exported from this 19th century spa town, 125 miles northwest of London, were roasted alive at roadside by French farmers who don't like competition.

"The French mistletoe is not much good," said farmer David Spilsbury. "It doesn't have as many berries as the English, and those it does have have gone brown this year."

In Tenbury Wells, about 5 tons of mistletoe was snapped up at the auction this year by wholesalers and self-styled druids who use mistletoe in fertility rites. A surprising number of buyers were named Smith.

"A nice innocent name to confuse the tax man," said a wholesaler who didn't want to be identified.

Gino Beaumont, who bought a dozen huge clumps of mistletoe, said druids who still follow some of the rites from the ancient Celtic religious order, himself included, still revere the plant and use it in potions.

"We must not lose our traditions," Beaumont said, although he added he would sell most of the mistletoe to hotels and pubs for decoration.

The practice of kissing beneath the mistletoe stems from a time when it was hung above English doors as a sign of peace and any visitor was greeted with a kiss.

Mistletoe is a parasitical evergreen which grows best in the bark of old apple trees. Seeds are spread by birds that eat the berries.

Mistletoe also grows in the United States and in northern Europe to the south of Sweden, sweeping east to Russia.

It still thrives around Tenbury Wells. The crisp air and craggy bark of the apple trees at least 30 years old provide the ideal conditions.

But apple trees are disappearing in England. In 30 years, commercial orchards have declined by two-thirds, a loss of about 150,000 acres.

Plantlife, a conservation charity, and the Botanical Society of the British Isles, have asked people to hunt for mistletoe this winter to find out where it is growing.