Blackcaps and mistletoe – newish to Britain and new in our garden

A tale of birds, sticky berries and a new experience in our garden…


Mistle Thrushes, named after their fondness for mistletoe berries, are the main 'vector' of mistletoe in the UK.  They are one of the few birds that recognise the white berries as edible, and put up with their stickiness.  But they are inefficient, gorging on the berries, swallowing them whole and excreting the undigested seeds, still in a sticky slime, at random.  If the thrush turd [did you know the latin name for a thrush is turdus?] lands on a tree branch any seeds lucky enough to stick may germinate – but most hang below in a slimy string and are doomed to failure.

Blackcaps, another mistletoe specialist, are more efficient, as they wipe each seed direct from their beak – but they only overwinter in quantity in continental Europe – where, unsurprisingly, they are considered the main mistletoe vector. 

New stuff:

Now in recent years we've had a growing overwintering population of blackcaps in the UK, especially around here, in the Severn Vale, where mistletoe is happily plentiful.  So there are some interesting possibilities here – of more efficient mistletoe seed distribution/planting.  No-one can say what this might mean for the amount and distribution of mistletoe.

But exactly how efficient are they?  Well, we've just found out, by piling up cut mistletoe on our garden picnic table (where else?) to see if we can tempt our lone local overwintering blackcap to partake.  He's played hard to get until the last few days, preferring the apples on the bird table, and shooing all the other birds away (impressive considering his small size) but yesterday he started on the mistletoe…  and is doing so well I'm beginning to worry for all our trees and shrubs, as he's wiping those seeds off everywhere.

And how efficient is he?  Well, have a look at the pics below – all are absolutely genuine blackcap mistletoe seed plantings, and I'm stunned at how good he is.  No shrub is immune – the close-ups are on false acacia (a good host) and the wider shot showing 4 seeds (2 in focus on the near branch and 2 just out of focus behind) are on buddleia (not a good host). 

If he carries on like this we may have to ration the supplies – the picnic table is covered in mistletoe at present, so there's a lot more to plant yet!  But perhaps it's better to have a blackcap feeding on mistletoe there than the alternative – a few weeks back a sparrowhawk used the same table to sit on whilst calmly dismembering a goldfinch (well it is designed for picnics…)





Mistletoe Kisses – links to lessons

The Galaxy 'Mistletoe Kisses' chocolate bar (see blog for Oct 10th) is proving very popular this season – I seem to find it in every shop I visit, though maybe that's just me. 

They've been very clever with some media stories about people's experiences of mistletoe kisses, with similar wording but regionally varying stats being quoted in local papers across the country.  I'll try and get access to the data if I can.

And there are some mistletoe kissing trivia at their website too – worth a look there if you're keen to learn how to kiss and kissing etiquette.  Or you can just watch this video – is that really Boris and David on the bikes at the end?  Boris' hair looks just slightly wrong, but the David C chap looks reasonably convincing, though I assume the graininess at the end is deliberate and intended to help the deception.

For a mistletoe-kissing video with slightly less success for the mistletoe-bearing main character try this version from the streets of Ipswich.

Odd mistletoe story of the month…

OakmistletoeadTimesSat6thDec2008blanked I've been getting a few queries recently about mistletoe on oak – and where to obtain it in Britain – and this ad, from last Saturday's Times, may be the reason. I'll say more about it below.  But first some background on mistletoe on oak…

The short answer to these queries about where to get oak mistletoe in Britain is that 'you don't'.  Mistletoe is incredibly rare on oak here, and doesn't grow well when it does occur. 

This simple state of affairs is complicated/confused by several factors, mostly relating to either its rarity, or confusion over its frequency…

In rarity terms mistletoe on oak evokes the druidic traditions of the sacred mistletoe on the sacred tree – referred to by Pliny in his writings about the British Druids.  This leads neatly on to beliefs – ancient and modern – in the 'special powers' of mistletoe on oak.  I won't go into those now.

In simple botanical terms the mistletoe on oak is the same as the mistletoe on any other host in Britain – and not really 'special' at all, just a curiosity.  The few documented mistletoe oaks in Britain today have very small mistletoe growths, showing that this is, in effect, a really poor host for the plant.  Indeed many of the 'British' mistletoe oaks are actually non-native oaks, more susceptible to mistletoe growths than the native varieties (more on that below).  Botanists (and others) guard the secrets of mistletoe oaks, and do not publicise their locations (though most are easy to find if you know how…).

The whole situation is confused by a naive belief by many that they have mistletoe on oaks in their local area – almost always based on incorrect tree identification (most turn out to be limes, horse chestnuts etc).  This view isn't helped by the regularity (abroad) of other mistletoe species on oaks in other countries.  So mistletoe on oak is fairly common in the USA but that's a different mistletoe and different oaks.  And there's a Central European mistletoe that likes oaks too – but it's not evergreen like our northern European mistletoe so it doesn't 'seem' right, and isn't the true mistletoe of legend.

And then there's the medicinal angle – where the German/Swiss institutes that make anthroposophic mistletoe medicines (for complementary cancer therapy) use our mistletoe species from a specific range of hosts, as they consider each host to impart a different biochemical contribution.  They actively encourage mistletoe on oaks to ensure they have an oak mistletoe element in their medicines.  They do this by finding susceptible oak varieties – ie varities more likely to grow mistletoe than others, and then actively cultivating it.  (i.e they grow 'ordinary' mistletoe on 'special' oaks, not the other way around).

So what is this ad about?  Short answer is I really don't know, though I think I know who the 'private gentleman' is.  It's not clear whether he wants material for propagation or simply to make into some medicinal brew etc.  But the price seems ridiculously high, and I can't see how he can be sure he won't be neatly ripped off with 'ordinary' mistletoe from a more common host.

If he really really wants oak mistletoe that badly he should be looking to the continent, where there is an organised cropping system, and/or if he really really wants to grow it, he should be thinking susceptible oak tree/grafts of susceptible oak tree limbs and simply using 'ordinary' mistletoe berries – as that's the way to do it.  There's plenty of advice on that sort of thing available if you have a legit cause and ask the right questions of the right people, here and abroad.  But that information would only be given out for good reason, not just for money.

It's an odd story, and seems to be a hammer to crack a nut. 

It may seem a little funny too – but it isn't harmless – I am really worried about possible theft and vandalism from our few mistletoe oaks that could result from this.  It doesn't seem a very responsible way to go about sourcing this material. 

Mistletoe glut now, but maybe a future shortage

Two apparently conflicting stories about mistletoe in the media in the last few days – one about a glut of mistletoe, and one about a shortage.  Confused?  Well much of the media is, but actually there’s no conflict at all.

The ‘glut’ as reported in recent blogging and in several recent papers (the Observer and the Daily Telegraph 2 weeks ago and the Mail on Sunday today), is all to do with the abundance of berries this season – making all the female mistletoe that’s cropped very attractive and marketable.  After all, the sprigs need berries to allow kissing:  A berry should be removed, according to old traditions, for each kiss, so lots of berries = lots of kisses.  A glut is good, and we have a glut.  Definitely.

(Of course the male plants don’t have berries – a point which should be obvious, but one which I have to point out worryingly often!)

The ‘shortage’, as reported in, amongst others, yesterday’s Telegraph, relates to a developing crisis in mistletoe management – where the old apple trees that support most of the cropped mistletoe are either being lost as they grow old and die and aren’t replaced, or are becoming overgrown by unmanaged male mistletoe and dying before their time.  Which equates to a shortage in, say 20 year’s time.

Now maybe I’m a bit biased here, as I helped promote both these stories, but, er, why is this causing confusion? 

There’s a glut now and a probable longterm future shortage.  Easy isn’t it?  Maybe not – have a look at this distorted version of the story in Blatherskite, a news blog that claims to tell the ‘inside story’.  [Note to Blatherskite team: Could try harder on this one guys.]


Tenbury Mistletoe Festival Report 2008

A good mistletoe day in Tenbury Wells today – Mistletoe Queen crowning etc etc, Mistletoe Tea being drunk in the streets, Charity Mistletoe Auction, Oklahoma Mistletoe linkages, loads of media interest, all topped off (for a few) by a Druid mistletoe ceremony…

A bit busy/too knackered to say much on this just now -some pics (mainly of the Queen crowning etc ceremony, and the Charity mistletoe Auction) below – click to enlarge.  Will add some explan text later…

IMG_8145 IMG_8151


the domination of mistletoe matters (for me, and a few others)

Well, I had a good National Mistletoe Day yesterday (1st Dec) – spent much of it dealing with mistletoe matters, so it must be December…

Today was no different – up at sparrowfart (aka dawn)  to do some local radio interviews on, er, mistletoe, and then off to the second Tenbury Wells Mistletoe Auction of 2008.  No pictures today – in too much of a rush.  Quick chat with a few traders, including Nick from InterRose in Suffolk, here to buy stock for his online mistletoe delivery service – which is one of the few direct competitors to Tenbury's (and partly my) own Teme Mistletoe online service.  We have a brief chat about the online mistletoe business, as one does.

But I have to rush off to pick mistletoe – on behalf of Teme Mistletoe who have a lot of orders to service this week.  The current orchard for harvesting is up above Knighton-on-Teme, through the farmyard, past the dog we've been told not to touch (not sure what happens if we do) and through the field you really really do need wellies for.  Reg (79 and 3/4) is already there, up a tree, shouting down that yesterday's haul could have been better and so we'll have to do some better quality control today…

So we sort as we go, only taking the best stuff as far as the cars, and worrying about the rest a bit later (tomorrow probably!).  Today's haul is going off to places all over the country this afternoon, via the magic of TNT Next Day Delivery.  From the tree to the customer in a day, how's that for freshness!

Some is off to a hairdressers in Essex – small sprigs as gifts for customers. But the bulk of today's crop is off to a chain of garden centres – I won't say which chain, but if you know the name of Harry Potter's helpful house-elf you'll have a good clue.

Later this week there's mistletoe going to other garden centres, lots of private customers and for some weekend weddings.  And this is just the first week of December…

But before it gets packed I have to rush off again, leaving Alec and Reg to pack the boxes back at base without me.  I've got the mistletoe-hungry media to satisfy as well and have been fielding calls from various contacts all day on and off.  This can get a weeny bit tiresome after a while – but media work is fun work too – and gives me an excuse to get out to sites I've not seen for a while.

This afternoon its a recce for a well-known BBC TV countryside prog – more on that next week – and my choice of venue is Teddington, just east of Tewkesbury, where Simon and Rebecca have been doing their own version of mistletoe marketing from a neglected fruit farm orchard since last December.  More on that later too – all I'll say for now is that Simon has just got back from London having delivered a big load of his mistletoe to Covent Garden Market today… 

And then it get's dark, so it's time to go home and read the emails and listen to the voicemails. 

Back to Tenbury first thing tomorrow…