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!
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)?
The story is based on statistics from Tesco, who have apparently released information on mistletoe sales from their stores across the country.
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.
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??
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 variegatumas 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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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It may be too late to buy fresh mistletoe online – but you can still plan on growing your own:
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.
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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.
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…