PC Brookes, ace mistletoe detective

Trawling through some newspaper archives I came across this gem, from the Gloucester Citizen in January 1887. It describes a case of mistletoe theft, in which the perpetrators are found guilty when a PC Brookes matches the cut mistletoe they’ve sold to the scars left on the apple tree! A brilliant piece of forensic science!

Gloucester Citizen Friday 14 January 1887
Gloucester Citizen Friday 14 January 1887

I hope everyone in court had a good kiss afterwards.

The bit I find difficult to believe is the valuation of the mistletoe at 5 shillings – which seems a little high, bearing in mind the location in Hardwicke, just up the road from my home between Gloucester and Stroud, and where mistletoe did then, and does now, grow in abundance, so value would surely have been (locally) much lower (especially as this was only what they stole, and could carry by hand)?

Can you measure love with Tesco’s mistletoe sales?

A headline in the Southern Reporter (a regional newspaper in Southern Scotland) announcing that Mistletoe sales slip in Galashielscaught my eye yesterday.

The story is based on statistics from Tesco, who have apparently released information on mistletoe sales from their stores across the country.

Mistletoe on display in Tesco
Mistletoe on display in Tesco

Their Galashiels store apparently had the third worst mistletoe sales in the whole UK, and the worst in Scotland, making it “Scotland’s leading loveless location”. Only Tamworth and Birmingham were worse.

No data were actually quoted, so it’s impossible to tell whether Galashiels’ ‘lovelessness’ is significant or just slightly below the norm. And the media section of Tesco’s website says nothing on this, so I can’t even verify the story.

Tesco mistletoe - looking rather tired already...
Tesco mistletoe – looking rather tired already…

But, whatever the statistics might say can you really measure mistletoe use by sales in Tesco? And does that reflect local lurve??

No, of course it doesn’t  Sales of mistletoe at Tesco are NOT going to reflect mistletoe usage for a start. Their mistletoe is (sorry Tesco) rather unappealing by the time it gets to their displays, half-dead, often rather manky and about as romantic as a stale Tesco Finest mince pie. They simply don’t know how to look after it.

And would sales reflect local love? Well, no, obviously. As the Southern Reporter article points out, sales in Tesco Lerwick were the second highest in the UK – and that makes no sense compared to Galashiels and Perth (also in the bottom ten).

And they also say, without apparently realising the inherent contradiction, that Hereford is another town in the bottom ten for mistletoe sales. Hereford is, of course, in the centre of the main mistletoe growing areas of the UK, and mistletoe is Herefordshire’s County Flower. I really don’t think you can measure Hereford’s love of the plant, or love in general, by measuring how much mistletoe was sold by Tesco there! It grows all round there on trees – who (and why?) in Hereford would buy it in Tesco??

An ‘impossible’ mistletoe sprig

LowRes_IMG_7139 Mistletoe NEVER has berries between the leaves. Except in inaccurate Christmassy drawings by botanically illiterate artists. It’s a point I’ve made in this blog many times, as my regular reader knows well.

So what (see left) is this???!!! A botanical impossibility? Well, it’s certainly not the way it’s supposed to be – which is that there are flowers between the leaves, each developing into a berry over 9-12 months, by which time those leaves have fallen off and 2 new shoots either side of the flowers have grown up to make two new pairs of leaves above the berries. Like this (see right):


That’s the norm, and the way 99% of mistletoe (remember I’m talking about Viscum album, the mistletoe of northern Europe, not to be confused with other mistletoe species of differing branching habits) appears. The specimen shown above is therefore either some form of mutant growth or something has happened to suppress those shoot primordia that should have grown up either side of the berries.

The latter seems most likely – as this particular shoot is from a branch with several similar aberrations (see slideshow below), some of which do show partial development of those new shoots, often on one side only and in a reduced form. It seems something has affected the growth of the whole mistletoe branch, probably altering hormone distribution within the shoot apices and messing up the usual pattern of shoot and leaf formation.

Another possibility is the influence of the mistletoe weevil Ixapion variegatum as that develops, as a larva, within mistletoe stems just below the terminal buds and affects how the bud develops. But the usual result is to kill the bud, not just disable some parts of it, and there is no other evidence of weevil activity (there should be exit holes where the adult has emerged). So I don’t think I can blame this on the weevil.

But I must stop saying this is an impossible configuration…

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Is mistletoe good, bad, or somewhere inbetween?

New Scientist’s Christmas Issue 2012 – that’s mistletoe (true Viscum album) hanging from the masthead.

Picked up a copy of the Christmas New Scientist  yesterday and was pleased to find a two page feature on mistletoe, with headline features claiming it to be ‘misunderstood’, ‘marvellous’ and the ‘unsung hero of the woods’. What had prompted this lavishing of praise for Viscum album? (and why woods – that’s not a Viscum album habitat?).

The answer, of course, is that the article wasn’t about Viscum album, the Christmas mistletoe, at all – indeed V. album was barely mentioned. This was an article about mistletoes, plural, so those headlines (including the cover) about mistletoe, singular, were a little misleading.

The article was based entirely on David Watson’s recent research in New South Wales, Australia, where he has been demonstrating mistletoes’ (note plural) contribution to forest biodiversity by removing all the mistletoe species in one area and monitoring biodiversity in that area compared to another. Results suggest that the mistletoe makes a significant contribution – directly and indirectly – with 20% less species in the mistletoe-free woodland three years later. Details are available in the formal paper from the Royal Society.

David Watson, whose NSW research says mistletoes are good,  inspecting mistletoe (pic by Magrit Beemster)

If this sounds familiar it’s because you read it here first back in July when I uploaded a short piece called Mistletoe is for Life, not just for Christmas! – my view being that it demonstrated that mistletoe shouldn’t just be thought of at Christmas. The editorial team at New Scientist obviously decided to take a different line – and to sit on the story until Christmas – which is understandable I suppose but a little aseasonal of them.

Scientific American wouldn’t do that would they? Well, yes they would and they have too – in their blog entry last Friday – covering exactly the same issues, also 6 months after the research was reported.

Both magazines talk up the story as newly portraying mistletoes as good not bad. This despite that fact that the concept is old (it’s obvious mistletoes contribute to biodiversity, with many known to have significant inter-relationships with other species – Watson’s research takes the concept a large step forward, but come-on guys, we all knew the basics already). And this despite the fact that mistletoes can be, and often are, in forestry and tree-health terms, very Bad. This isn’t ever a black and white scenario – all mistletoes belong in the grey area of good for some things, bad for others.

Armidale Dumaresq Council senior officer Richard Morsley inspects one of the destructive mistletoes at the Arboretum.
NSW Armidale Dumaresq Council senior officer Richard Morsley inspects one of the destructive mistletoes at the local Arboretum.  Spot the difference between this mistletoe pic and the one with David Watson above right…

As an example of the opposite scenario consider a another recent mistletoe story, also from New South Wales, where Armidale Dumaresq Council are contemplating yet another round of mistletoe control in Drummond Park and their Arboretum as many trees are becoming infested by too much mistletoe, causing some to die prematurely.

This is the reality of mistletoe – good in moderation but bad in excess. And ironically it may be man-made habitats that encourage the excess. Most mistletoes tends to grow luxuriantly on trees in open situations – parks and arboreta are perfect conditions for excess growths – hence the problems in Armidale.

The Mistletoe League Project is collating information on mistletoe management in Britain

And that’s also, probably, one of the reasons for some of the problems of excess mistletoe growth here in Britain, where THE mistletoe, Viscum album, is becoming a problem in older, neglected, orchards as well as in some garden situations.  Our mistletoe can become dominant on trees in the open habitats of orchards and gardens and lack of management will lead to overgrowth and tree death.

If you have mistletoe in these situations do take part in the Mistletoe League survey project, collecting information about mistletoe management on fruit trees in the UK.

2012: loadsa berries, a weeny bit green & lots of seedlings…

Last day (hooray!) of the mistletoe despatches for the English Mistletoe Shop today. Five weeks of being covered, on harvesting days, with algae from the mistletoe stems and, on despatch days, with slime from squashed berries – and all so that people can enjoy a few kisses. Is it worth it? In financial terms maybe not (don’t encourage your children to aspire to be mistletoe traders if you want them to be wealthy).  Though in satisfaction terms it’s well worth it – helping keep ancient traditions alive, keeping Britain kissing and helping conserve old orchards through a mix of mistletoe management and sales.

All season I’ve been pointing out that it’s been another good berry year – with loads of berries on the female (obviously) plants reflecting a good pollination season back in February and March. But the crop hasn’t been perfect – as berries aren’t everything.

The most obvious problem this year was ripening. Mistletoe berries usually swell to full spherical shape (from oval) in late October, and ripen to a white colour (from green) in November (developing to their full translucent pearly white in December).  But this season many of the berries seem to have been a month behind, with some still slightly ovoid and a little too green even now, 19th December. A few media reports have suggested this is ‘because we’ve not had enough frost yet’ – which is, of course, nonsense, as usual in many media reports. The truth is much simpler, we didn’t have enough sun this growing season – a simple fact that can be easily demonstrated by comparing the mistletoe on the sunny side of the tree with the more shady side. Guess which side has the most advanced berries? The sunny side does.

And so 2012’s wet summer did affect mistletoe a little after all – though not by reducing berry numbers as some reports would have it (Telegraph and Express, I’m looking at you) but by delaying berry ripeness a little. The seeds in those berries are most ripe, and best for planting, in February or March, so there’s still plenty of time for them to catch up before germination time.

Mistletoe with lots of mistletoe seedlings establishing - red arrows show 3-4 year old growths, blue arrows 2-3 year-old growths
Mistletoe with lots of mistletoe seedlings establishing – red arrows show 3-4 year old growths, blue arrows 2-3 year-old growths – very suggestive of blackcap activity

Another curiosity this season has been the amount of algal growth on the mistletoe stems (and sometimes leaves too). Some surface algal growth on mistletoe is common, but this season has seemed exceptional, with hands and clothing often caked in green algal powder after a few hours cutting whilst up a tree. Again I assume this is due to the rather wet season we had last summer, which would have been ideal for algal growth on tree and mistletoe surfaces. We’ve found ourselves having to wash some material to make it presentable for the shop outlet – not an easy task.

And, last but not least, in the orchards we’ve worked in, there have been very large numbers of new seedlings, plus evidence of this season’s seeds already being distributed widely on stems (including on the parent plant – mistletoe has no scruples regarding what host it grows on). This new spread of seedlings, and fresh seeds, may be the result of new activity by our over-wintering blackcaps – over here in much larger numbers then they used to be. And that may be bad news for those orchards – and ultimately their mistletoe.

Proving the blackcaps’ role may be virtually impossible – but something is causing the establishment of excess seedlings…  See picture left for an example of seedlings on mistletoe itself – the seedlings are arrowed, but should be obvious as odd branching that doesn’t fit the normal growth  patterns.

Commercial break (a word from our sponsors):

It may be too late to buy fresh mistletoe online – but you can still plan on growing your own:

Mistletoe Grow-Kit Gift Card
Mistletoe Grow-Your-Own Kit

Why not buy a Grow-Your-Own Mistletoe Kit from the English Mistletoe Shop?

Kits aren’t sent out until February, but you can pre-order now, or you can buy a Grow-Kit Gift Card (4 designs available) to give at Christmas. 

Details of all at www.buy.mistletoe.org.uk/growkits.htm

Can mistletoe keep your cat calm?

Dorwest’s veterinary Skullcap, Valerian, Mistletoe, and Gentian mixture calms down Fido and Tiger

Spent the afternoon in pagan company today, with a mistletoe cutting ritual, (twenty-)first century style, and good conversation.  Many thanks to Keith et al – you know who you are – for organising it.

One of the issues discussed, during and afterwards, was mistletoe’s role in medicine – and the ‘usual’ issues – modern cancer therapy, traditional use as a herbal tea to relieve high blood pressure etc were discussed.

But we hardly touched on the other ‘big medicine thing’ for mistletoe – which is that for centuries it has been used to calm nerves – sometimes for extreme nervous problems (e.g. epilepsy) but most recently simply as something to calm you down.

So, should you throw away those Diazepam pills and use mistletoe instead? Not necessarily! Therapeutic effects of mistletoe are variable, depending on the preparation and nature of harvest, and I’m certainly NOT making any recommendation! (and do read my caveat below).

But it is interesting that mistletoe does pop up in the ingredients of some herbal medicines intended to induce calm – though the only ones readily available are for, er, your cat or dog.

The picture shows Dorwest Herb’s Skullcap & Valerian Tablets – which, despite not mentioning mistletoe in the title (why not?), are listed as containing Valerian 5:1 50mg. Mistletoe 3:1 50mg, Scullcap 30mg, Gentian 2:1 24mg.

They are described as a ‘licensed herbal medicine for the symptomatic relief of anxiety, nervousness, excitability, travel sickness, and as an adjunct in the treatment of epilepsy in cats and dogs. Particularly effective for calming pets suffering from noise phobias such as fireworks, gunshots and thunderstorms as well as anxiety related travel sickness and hyperactivity’.

So there you are, a new use for mistletoe you’d never thought about before – and just what your dog needs for those New Year’s Eve fireworks.  Available in many reputable stores including the all-conquering Amazon.


Caveat: This blog does NOT give medical advice – and is intended for discussion only.  All medical references are to Viscum album, European Mistletoe – do not assume its properties apply to other species – and do not, ever, try mistletoe medicines without professional medical advice.


Commercial break (a word from our sponsors):

Want to grow your own mistletoe? Looking for a cool Yule gift?

Mistletoe Grow-Kit Gift Card
Mistletoe Grow-Your-Own Kit

Why not buy a Grow-Your-Own Mistletoe Kit from the English Mistletoe Shop?

Kits aren’t sent out until February, but you can pre-order now, or you can buy a Grow-Kit Gift Card (4 designs available) to give at Christmas. 

Details of all at www.buy.mistletoe.org.uk/growkits.htm

Blackcaps, mistletoe and Monty Don doesn’t know

No he doesn't - Monty Don gets the answers wrong
No he hasn’t – Monty Don gets the answers wrong

The possible interaction between increasing overwintering Blackcaps and increasing spread of mistletoe In the UK is fascinating – and I’ve mentioned it in this blog several times.

The basic story is that Blackcaps, Sylvia atricapilla, have started overwintering in Britain in increasing numbers since the late 1980s, a few dozen at first but now 1000s.  And during the same time period mistletoe distribution seems to have subtly changed.  Basically there’s more and faster spread of mistletoe in eastern parts of the UK than there used to be.

This change in mistletoe might be due to climate change – studies suggest mistletoe will move east with predicted climate change.  Or it might be due to those blackcaps – one of the few birds that likes mistletoe berries – spreading berries more efficiently.  They tend to ‘plant’ every seed by wiping it off their beaks on to a branch, whereas thrushes – our only other regular mistletoe eater, consume the berries whole and excrete the seeds, with most missing a branch.

I thought this story was relatively well-known by now, and have referred to it this season in articles for the RHS and the Society of Biology.

So I was surprised today to find Monty Don, in the Daily Mail today, claiming that he has the answers to mistletoe distribution.  According to him;

  • it occurs in its core area (the SW midlands/welsh border) because that’s where blackcaps migrate to – which is utter nonsense, not least because it’s been in this core area for hundreds of years and our overwintering blackcaps have only been here a few decades at most.  And they overwinter across much of Britain, not just in the SW midlands.
  • the blackcaps all come from Siberia – which they don’t – they come from Germany and adjoining areas and are a well-studied sub-race for which there are several recent scientific papers
  • they excrete the seed – er, no they don’t Monty. Mistle Thrushes excrete the seed. Blackcaps wipe the beak. How can you get that wrong?

Monty says he knows all this as the result of a new study – I wish I knew what ‘new study’ – as his critical facts are completely untrue. The impact of Blackcaps will be that mistletoe core area is blurred and widened – they don’t/won’t define it, they potentially ruin it.  He couldn’t have got it more wrong. But the references to blackcaps and mistletoe and new studies do imply he’s heard something – perhaps a chinese-whisper version of the real story and just extrapolated it randomly? He should have access to the account in RHS’s The Garden, perhaps he should read it.

Mr Don has written some nonsense about mistletoe before – but this article headed ‘Monty knows the answers’ really is an insult to the Mail’s readership.  He gets paid for this?  The Mail should be asking for their money back.


PS and don’t get me started on his weird statement about doubts whether seeds can survive birds’ digestive systems – how do you think seeds from berries are distributed in general Monty?  That’s what berries are FOR – to be eaten by grazing birds and animals who then excrete the definitely-still-live seeds elsewhere. That’s the whole basis of why plants have berries…. Sigh…

Toronto has a street full of ‘kissing stations’

mistletoekissingstationtorontoThe Utah mistletoe kissing experiment reported earlier isn’t unique – they have something similar, though not for research, in Toronto.

mistletoekissingstationtoronto2There they have a whole street (Bloor Street) with 21 ‘kissing stations’ set up along it – each marked with a circle on the pavement/sidewalk and each with a little bunch of mistletoe hanging up above.

It’s difficult to tell from the pictures but it looks as if they might be using real mistletoe (though it could be plastic!) under that ball of tinsel (unlike that Utah experiment).  Though this would be one of the American Phoradendron mistletoe species, not the ‘proper’ European mistletoe of true kissing tradition (but that would be hard to come by in Toronto).

The project has been organised by the Bloor Annex Business Improvement Area as part of their promotional activity – and is, perhaps, a concept we should consider over here – not least in Tenbury Wells (it would test the nerve of people walking along Teme Street if there were two dozen kissing stations dangling over the pavement…).

TV news story about the Toronto kissing stations below:

Utah students ‘research’ mistletoe kiss

Some light relief from Utah this morning – students, apparently from Brigham Young University (BYU), have uploaded a Youtube video called the Mistletoe Kissing Prank. They interview people about their Christmas habits, ending with a question about kisssing under mistletoe, at which point mistletoe is lowered, by an unseen assistant, over their head.

It’s an interesting video, and the slap at 30 seconds in is a must-see, but it’s also interesting for two fascinating anomolies:

Firstly BYU is a private university operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – i.e. the Mormons, and of course mistletoe, and kissing under it, is deemed pagan and unacceptable by many far less conservative churches (so why aren’t there more slaps?).

Secondly, that stuff dangled over their heads surely isn’t mistletoe – looks like a bit of fake fir-tree and a few big red baubles.

BYU has an ‘honor code’ requiring particular standards of dress, grooming, no alcohol or drug use, no extramarital sex etc – but it obviously doesn’t extend to requiring proper mistletoe.  Though perhaps it does the opposite, and actually bans mistletoe, so maybe this was the best they could do?

Similar story from Toronto to follow later…

Birmingham media get mistletoe story right…

I’ve often had reason to rant at the national media for their apparent inability to grasp mistletoe crop v. conservation issues – so it’s good to see that the Sunday Mercury, a local paper in Birmingham, got it right last weekend.  Online story is here, or you can read the print version in the photo (click to enlarge).  I particularly like the quote from me:

“It’s utter b****cks – and you can quote me,” said Midlands mistletoe expert Jonathan Briggs.

Now that’s what I call a good quote!

So, come on Telegraph, Guardian, Independent, Times, Mail etc – if the Sunday Mercury can get this right why can’t you?

Thanks to Dale Martin of dmphotos (who took that pic of me in my wonderfully warm hat) for drawing my attention to the piece.