Bee-lieving in mistletoe berries

Mistletoe berries need bees – a fact that’s often overlooked when people talk about the ‘crop’. They interpret berry numbers as being a function of the recent summer or autumn weather, and barely give a thought to their real origin – from flowers that need to be pollinated.

Flowers that open in February. And need to be pollinated by insects – bees especially. It’s the amount of pollination that determines the number of berries – and that depends on bees and other insects in February.

This comes up again and again when I give talks on mistletoe – which I’ve been doing a lot recently – when I explain how slow-growing mistletoe is; the flower buds slowly developing in the year before, opening in February and, if pollinated, developing oh so slowly over 10-12 months to produce mature berries. By which time there are new flower buds ready for the new season. Berries may be a year old before they are fully ripe.

FoEbackgroundGetting back to the bees I was pleased to see the Friends of the Earth ‘Christmas Bee Saver Kit’ yesterday – which they’ll send you in return for a donation. Why pleased? Because it features a picture of mistletoe complete with mistletoe flower buds, right next to a bee. It just seemed a nice touch.

beedetailFoEWhether it is deliberate (with FoE knowing their mistletoe biology) or just an accident of a Christmas-themed design (with FoE just commissioning a seasonal design) I don’t know. But I like it either way.

[the flower buds are the central buds between the leaves]

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Berries need birds – or people – too, to get their seeds planted. If you want to have a go try a mistletoe growing kit from the English Mistletoe Shop

The Kissing Tree – a mistletoe book for children

As part of the Tenbury Wells Mistletoe Festival 2018 a new children’s book, The Kissing Tree, has been published, written by local author Helen Wendy Cooper.  It is part of the Tenbury Mistletoe Association’s promotions this season.

The story centres on Jack the Jackdaw who is searching for the perfect tree for mistletoe to grow on – but is thwarted by a Robin that eats all his mistletoe berries. An imaginative and educational book for children, showing how mistletoe needs a tree to grow on and that berries/seeds are spread by birds.  So far so good.

My only complaint, which mistletoe advocates may well have anticipated already, is that neither Jackdaws or Robins generally eat mistletoe berries!  Now if it had been “Mike the Mistle Thrush” being thwarted by a mischievous Blackcap that would have been fine.  And even appropriate, as Blackcaps ARE usurping Mistle Thrushes as distributors of mistletoe.  So there is a real life story that could be referenced here.

So, educational in telling how mistletoe grows on trees and is spread by birds, but, sadly, suggesting entirely the wrong birds.

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[of course you don’t need a bird, you can plant the seeds yourself – find out how here or buy a Grow-Your-Own Kit here]

Does the Mistletoe Weevil have its own parasite?

In previous years I’ve reported on the 6 mistletoe insects we have in Britain – and how we know very little about them. Indeed 2 of the 6 were only discovered here in the years since 2000 and the distribution and biology of all 6 are hardly known. But all are definitely tied to mistletoe, as they eat nothing else (except the Anthocoris bug, which eats the others).

The six are:  a moth Celypha woodiana (the Mistletoe Marble Moth), a beetle Ixapion variegatum (the Mistletoe Weevil), three sap-sucking bugs Hypseloecus visci, Pinalitus viscicola and Cacopsylla visci and the predatory bug Anthocoris visci

The weevil lays its eggs inside mistletoe stems and the larva develops inside, only emerging as an adult weevil and leaving a distinctive exit hole. Affected shoots often show die-back of the terminal bud.  And that’s about all that is known about it. A simple life-cycle, no complications. Or none known.

However, a recent paper by Ian Thompson and Godfrey Blunt in Field Studies journal recording studies of invertebrate communities in Shropshire orchards makes an intriguing observation. The authors made a special effort to record mistletoe insects within the orchards they visited, including  collecting some mistletoe shoots with bud die-back to see if weevils emerged.   Some weevils did indeed emerge from some of the samples.  But from others a tiny parasitic wasp emerged instead of the weevil.  It was from a genus of wasps, Triaspis, that specialises in parasitising the eggs and larvae of beetles.

The obvious inference is that this wasp was parasitising the Mistletoe Weevil larvae.  The wasp proved impossible to identify to species – and so may, itself, be newly discovered and might, perhaps, be a dedicated specialist only parasitising the Mistletoe Weevil.  Which only eats mistletoe, itself a parasite.

So we could have a new species and a new parasite – of an insect that eats a parasite.

But no-one, yet, knows…

Reference:
Ian Thompson and Godfrey Blunt (2018) 1 Invertebrate Communities Of Old Traditional Orchards In South Shropshire (Vc40)  Field Studies 2018

Mistletoe harvesting underway – everywhere…

The first of this season’s mistletoe auctions is happening on Tuesday morning – and I’m guessing that a lot of stock has already arrived on site, with more coming tomorrow. This is ‘proper’ traditional mistletoe, gathered from the old apple orchards across Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. If you want to attend you’ll need to be at Burford House Garden Stores, Burford, Tenbury Wells, WR15 8HQ on Tuesday morning. And you’ll have another chance on the following two Tuesdays.

This traditional mistletoe is, of course, the mistletoe species native to northern Europe, and the only species we have in Britain. It is the origin of all those myths and legends about mistletoe and the true mistletoe of Christmas kissing.

But there are many other mistletoes around – and in places where they don’t have Viscum album, other mistletoe species are substituted at Christmas. It’s arguably cheating, as it is our species that the kissing tradition belongs too, but it’s fun – and why not consider all mistletoes as kissing plants?

The harvest of these other mistletoes is also underway – particularly, as usual, in Texas where the Phoradendron mistletoes take the place of Viscum album, growing on Mesquite trees instead on Apple.  Texas has a long tradition of sending its mistletoe across the USA and every year there are stories about the harvest and how it’s looking.

One particular Texan story caught my attention this week – from Mason County where eight-year old Jarrett Worrell is taking the lead on his family’s new venture selling mistletoe online.  You can watch and read about him and his family talk about their mistletoe venture here: https://www.kxan.com/news/local/austin/mason-family-launches-business-to-send-texas-mistletoe-holiday-cheer/1614358422

And, if you’re in the US, you can order Jarrett’s mistletoe here:  https://masonmountainmistletoe.com/

The peaceful side of mistletoe

With the centenary of the Armistice tomorrow it seems fitting to briefly re-visit the tradition of mistletoe as a symbol of peace – which is now often overlooked.

Tradition holds that the Romans considered mistletoe a plant of parley, and that opposing armies would negotiate peace treaties under a mistletoe growth. This may, or may not, be strictly true but I doubt mistletoe played an active role in the 1918 peace negotiations.

Other traditions also reference mistletoe as a plant of peace; some versions of the Norse Baldur legend, in which Baldur is slain with a mistletoe-tipped weapon, suggest that his mother Frigga (a goddess of love) decreed that mistletoe must never do such harm ever again – and she proclaimed that all who meet under it henceforth will embrace and be friends.

The Greek legend of Aeneas visiting the Underworld also reflects an element of mistletoe as a peace symbol, with Aeneas using mistletoe, aka The Golden Bough, to gain safe passage to and from Hades.

These aspects of mistletoe tradition are rarely mentioned today – most people simply remember it as a symbol of love, friendship and romance. These are, of course, merely a variation on the same theme. The peace symbolism was perhaps remembered in mainland Europe longer than in the UK, with a strong tradition of mistletoe as a plant of good luck – a Porte Bonheur – in France well into the 20th century and maybe still today. The French New Year greeting Au Gui L’An Neuf  relates to the giving of mistletoe as a good luck gift for the New Year.

1915mtoeediteddown1But, getting back to peace itself, could it be that mistletoe actively seen as a peace symbol – particularly in the awful reality of the Great War? This was, after all, fought on land where mistletoe was still valued for its luck and peace properties.

It’s difficult to be sure – but there is a fair amount of mistletoe imagery amongst pictures of the time, including several sets where soldiers wear mistletoe in their hats. I rather doubt they were expecting to kiss anyone so it seems more likely they wore it for luck.

wwi_silk

There was also use of mistletoe imagery in postcards sent back from the front  – some specifically themed as Peace or Luck – so perhaps those are real proof of the ongoing, at that time, belief in mistletoe as a peace/luck symbol.  But the evidence is patchy, and those postcards could be coincidental use of mistletoe, as a Christmas symbol, simply being used in a postcard sent at Christmas.

It is tempting to make a link though – and there are other possible examples from WW2 that add a bit of weight to the concept. But these too could be coincidental. One of my favourites is a remark Winston Churchill made in December 1944, on his high-risk (but successful) visit to Athens to stabilise the situation there by negotiating with the various Greek factions. On Christmas Day 1944, after flying in secretly, he was billeted offshore aboard HMS Ajax whose captain warned him that despite his mission it might be necessary for the ship to enter into action at any time.  Churchill responded by saying:

“Pray remember, Captain, that I come here as a cooing dove of peace, bearing a sprig of mistletoe in my beak – but far be it from me to stand in the way of military necessity”.  

Was that reference to a mistletoe sprig (rather than an olive branch) merely because it was Christmas – or did Churchill understand that mistletoe was also a plant of peace?

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If you want to grow your own plant of peace and luck why not buy a Mistletoe Grow-Kit (or Grow-Kit Gift Card) from the English Mistletoe Shop?

Details at  https://englishmistletoeshop.co.uk/live/

Mistletoe ‘crop’ 2018 – looking good, ripening early?

aimage006redAlmost November, so time to look at how mistletoe is looking for Christmas this year. And, again (this is several years in a row now) it’s looking fairly good.  The female plants I’ve looked at are festooned with berries and it would seem we have yet another ‘bumper crop’.

Of course it’s not a crop, not in the conventional sense of something grown for harvest, as most simply grows where it wants to and isn’t actively encouraged.  But in areas and habitats where it grows well – primarily the SW midlands in mature (often over-mature) apple orchards – it can seem like a crop, and certainly can be harvested like one.

One unusual aspect this season is that many of the berries are whitening up already – whereas they normally stay green well into November.  Why, I don’t know, but it does seem consistent with many other berries and fruits ripening earlier than usual this year. So far it’s only whitening from green, the later change from opaque white to translucent white usually only happens in December/January, so it will be interesting to see if that is early this year too.

First wholesale auctions of apple orchard mistletoe are at the end of November – I’ll report then on how the plants have matured, and what prices are like.

The pictures here were all taken in Gloucestershire Orchard Trust’s orchards at Longney, on the banks of the Severn just south of Gloucester, last week.

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Some mistletoe events at Tenbury Wells 2018

Tenbury is hosting its mistletoe auctions and festival again this year.

auction1Mistletoe Auction dates are:

  • Tuesday 27th November
  • Tuesday 4th December
  • Tuesday 11th December

All take place at Burford House Garden Stores, Burford, Tenbury Wells, WR15 8HQ and are organised by Nick Champion.

 

druids1Druid Mistletoe Ceremony is on Saturday 1st December
This is organised by The Mistletoe Foundation who will be on the Burgage in Tenbury Wells for the Mistletoe Ceremony at 2pm as part of Tenbury Mistletoe Festival 2018.

The ceremony will honour the Mistletoe, male and female plants, and the harvests of the Teme Valley.  Participants (all welcome) are invited to meet at S.E.N.S.E (Temeside House, Teme St, Tenbury Wells, Worcestershire, WR15 8AA) at 1.15pm. The procession to the Burgage will begin at 1.45pm. Or you can join in at the Burgage from 2pm.

Other Mistletoe Festival Event information will be available soon – you can check the Tenbury Mistletoe Association website (showing last year’s events at present)  or their facebook page for updates.