Dear Readers, as Christmas is just around the corner I thought I’d share a few thoughts about mistletoe. What a strange plant this is! It’s associated with Christmas because it stays fresh and green even after the trees lose their leaves, but it has a longer association with fertility: the branches, foliage and seeds are said to resemble various sexual organs, though I must admit that I am having to squint to see much of a likeness, innocent soul that I am.
Nonetheless, mistletoe has been used as a ‘cure’ for infertility (though as it’s toxic one would have to be very careful), as a charm for young women seeking to find husbands, and, of course, as an excuse for kissing. My latest issue of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) magazine has an article on mistletoe, which mentions that the kissing business probably started in the southwest Midlands, which is where mistletoe is commonest, and spread out from there, probably as a commercial enterprise, with the plant being taken to other parts of the country by the rapidly-growing railway network.
What intrigued me most in this article, however, was the story of how the mistletoe is spread. Mistletoe is a hemiparasite, which means that it derives its water and nutrients from its hosts, although it can photosynthesise itself. The plant seems to prefer hawthorn, apple, poplar and linden trees, though it has been found on hundreds of other species. The name ‘mistle’ comes from the plant’s association with thrushes, in particular the mistle thrush, which loves the fruit. It was long believed that mistletoe was spread by the birds wiping their beaks on twigs to get rid of the sticky substance that coats the seeds. However, it seems that mistle thrushes don’t do this, but simply excrete the seeds, only some of which will fall onto the correct type of branch and stick.
However, over the past few decades there has been a large increase in the range of mistletoe in the UK, and the reason cited in the RHS article (by Graham Rice) is the blackcap. These little warblers used to migrate in winter, but an increasing number are staying in the UK all year round. Not only do they love mistletoe, but they do wipe their beaks after eating the fruit.
Although mistletoe feeds from its host trees, it’s not generally seen as dangerous to them. Indeed, there is advice in the RHS article on how to persuade mistletoe to colonise your trees. So this seems like quite a happy partnership between the mistletoe and the blackcap.
Mistletoes belong to the sandalwood family (Santalaceae), and I’d never really given any thought to whether there were other species. And of course, there are. In Southern Spain there’s the red-berried Viscum cruciatum or red-berried mistletoe.
In central and southern Europe there’s the yellow-berried mistletoe (Loranthus europaeus) which favours oak trees. The plants in the Loranthanceae family are known as ‘showy mistletoes’. I can see why.
Another ‘showy mistletoe’ is the Western Australian Christmas Tree (Nuytsia floribunda). This is a hemiparastic tree, of all things – it draws nutrients from the roots of any nearby plants that it can reach. Almost all species are susceptible to attack, but normally the tree only takes a small amount from each individual plant. It will even infiltrate underground cables. This is an extraordinary tree, revered by some of the Aboriginal peoples of the country, who used the bark for shields and harvested small amounts of the sticky gum that it exuded. The flowers, which can grow to up to a metre long, are favourites with pollinators
And finally, there are the dwarf mistletoes, which are more closely related to ‘our’ mistletoe than the showy mistletoes above. These can be more serious pests of trees because they are considered to be disease-vectors. They don’t rely on birds to spread their seeds, but can shoot them at up to fifty miles an hour after building up thermostatic pressure within the plant. The species below, Arceuthobium oxycedri, grows on juniper, and can cause problems where the shrubs are being grown commercially (for example, for their berries to flavour gin).
So there is a lot more to mistletoes than just our species, but of course, the plain old white-berried one is closest to my heart. And of course, it needs a poem. So how about this one, which is actually a song – the words are by Barry Cornwall, and the poem itself comes from a book called ‘Christmas with the Poets’ by Henry Vizetelly, published in 1851. It’s rather a rambunctious way to finish this post, but as winter comes we need to ‘banish melancholy’ in any way that we can, I find. I hope you enjoy it!
Words: Barry Cornwall
Source: Henry Vizetelly, Christmas With The Poets (London: David Bogue, 1851).
When winter nights grow long,
And winds without blow cold,
We sit in a ring round the warm wood fire,
And listen to stories old!
And we try to look grave (as maids should be),
When the men bring in boughs of the laurel tree.
O, the laurel, the evergreen tree!
The poets have laurels, and why not we!
How pleasant, when night falls down,
And hides the wintry sun,
To see them come in to the blazing fire,
And know that their work is done;
Whilst many bring in, with a laugh or rhyme,
Green branches of holly for Christmas time.
O, the holly, the bright green holly!
It tells (like a tongue) that the times are jolly!
Sometimes — (in our grave house
Observe, this happeneth not;)
But at times the evergreen laurel boughs,
And the holly are all forgot;
And then — what then? why, the men laugh low,
And hang up a branch of —— the mistletoe!
Oh, brave is the laurel! and brave is the holly,
But the mistletoe banisheth melancholy!
Ah, nobody knows, nor ever shall know,
What is done under the mistletoe.
Photo One By Agnieszka Kwiecień, Nova – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=752332
Photo Two by By Fir0002 (talk) (Uploads) – Fir0002 (talk) (Uploads), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32885953
Photo Three By Yuriy75 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8897596
Photo Four By Charles J. Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography.co.uk, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=104326583
Photo Five By Vogelartinfo – Own work, GFDL 1.2, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13276336
Photo Six By Nbauers – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77809079
Photo Seven by Stefan.lefnaer, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Eight By enjosmith – Flickr: WA Christmas Trees, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30325757
Photo Nine By Photographs by JarrahTree…commons.wikimedia.org, CC BY 2.5 au, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29752289
Photo Ten by By Elie plus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27859735