A back garden parasitic plant safari

Parasites in lockdown – a round-up of the parasitic plants I’m growing in our garden this year, so far: Not just mistletoe, but also dodders (two species), broomrape (one species – another due soon) and yellow rattle. And an aspiration for Lousewort and a hope of Toothworts (two).

mistletoe shoots 2020Firstly mistletoe, obviously. There’s lots of that (I wonder why?!). These are young growths, about 4 or 5 years old, planted by Blackcaps on an already mistletoe-laden apple. Looking particularly splendid at the moment with the new lighter-green shoots and leaves.

yellow rattle young shoots 2020A bit more down to earth – Yellow Rattle, Rhinanthus minor, a root parasite of grasses, growing here in a pot amongst greater quaking grass Briza maxima. Yellow Rattle is, like mistletoe, only a hemi-parasite as it has its own green leaves, linking, in this case, to the host grasses via the roots. Pretty flowers in summer – these are only young shoots.

orobanche shoots 2020 aVery down to earth – emerging flowering shoots of Ivy Broomrape, Orobanche hederae, at the base of some ivy in a pot. It’s a full parasite – no chlorophyll of its own – that parasitises ivy roots.  Fairly easy to grow – I’ve been growing this for many years now – but unpredictable year to year – these are the only visible shoots from several previous locations (and ivy-filled pots) round the garden that we have this year. They’ll be 6 inches or more high when they’ve fully grown – unless the slugs and snails get to them first. Which they sometimes do.  Will be trying some more Orobanches later this year…

nettle dodder 2020Up in the air again – this is Greater Dodder, Cuscuta europaea, which parasitises nettle stems by winding round them and linking into the host vascular system. No leaves, so these are fully parasitic, unlike mistletoe. They germinate in soil but become detached from the ground once they’ve reached a host stem. Nettle is the nominal host but they will twirl and link to any plant within reach later on – they seem to really like the Epilobium stem nearby (see pic). This is my second season of growing these – including on the stingless form of stinging nettle, Urtica dioica subsp. galeopsifolia, which is slightly more garden- and human- friendly.

gorse dodder shoots 2020And, a first for us for 2020, another dodder – Cuscuta epithymum – smaller than the nettle one but more familiar to most as the pink stems that festoon and parastise gorse on moorland in the summer. These are, so far, tiny seedlings from seed I (and John Hollier) gathered in north Devon last summer. I’m trying them in pots of gorse – only a few have reached the host stems so far, and where they have done this the tiny white and yellow parasite seedlings are just beginning to grasp the hosts. They’re a long way from those massive pink growths of late summer.

lousewort 2020And, to represent some missing parasites, here’s a pic of some rather dry-looking Lousewort, Pedicularis sylvatica, taken this week not in the garden but up a hill in West Devon (despite the lockdown – we are allowed a bit of exercise!). It normally likes it marshier than this so it isn’t very happy! A similar concept to Yellow Rattle, parasiting roots.

Hoping to grow this next year – and also hoping to get some progress with the Toothworts – common and purple – neither of which I’ve had success with, yet…

Spring – mistletoe has nothing to do but grow…  

April, in lockdown, and the main mistletoe action season is over – berries ripened (Nov/Dec/Jan), seeds planted (Feb/March), flowers over (Feb/March), pollination done (Feb/March).

From now until next winter mistletoe has nothing to do but grow.  For the seedlings it’s a bit more challenging – they still have to link into their new host’s vascular system, but for a mature mistletoe there really isn’t anything else to do now.  Just grow new shoots and new leaves and, for the female plants, slowly develop the berries over the next 9+months.

This pattern dictates the year for a mistletoe specialist like me – once April comes the talks have finished, the enquiries dry up and we stop sending out grow-kit orders. Time to take stock.  Especially this year as we’re in lockdown because of coronavirus.

This is a time for other plant parasites though, so I may post some news about those soon – dodders, broomrapes, toothworts – this is the start of their time for germination and flowering.

Not forgetting mistletoe though, obviously, so here are a few pictures of the orchard at Standish Court, taken yesterday, showing apple trees festooned with mistletoe.  Too much mistletoe actually – you’ll see in some pics some trees have been blown down, possibly weakened and top heavy due to mistletoe.  The standing tree with most mistletoe is, I’d suggest, doomed unless urgent remedial action is taken to strip off most of the mistletoe.  A few mistletoe growths are fine – indeed I encourage it in moderation – but this many growths mean the tree’s not able to produce enough leaves to keep itself alive (the mistletoe leaves give nothing to the tree) and it will, sadly, die.

Note, by the way, that the trees in blossom are pears, which bloom earlier than apple.  Mistletoe dislikes pears but loves apples, so there’s a marked contrast at this time of year – pears are all in blossom, apples are not – but, in this orchard at least, they are covered in mistletoe.

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Mistletoe on BBC R4 this morning

Happy Christmas! And if you want a mistletoey start to your day have a listen to today’s Farming Today on BBC R4 – which is all about mistletoe, including an interview with me.

Available (for a while at least) on BBC Sounds App or on the website: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000cmt2

Mistletoe trade – then and now

1864 Herefordshire Newspaper Cutting

Many of my mistletoe talks this season have had a history theme, looking back at mistletoe in days gone by – both ancient (myth, legend etc) and modern, describing how Christmas demand for mistletoe from the 19th century onwards made it a saleable product, not just a curious tree parasite.

1890 Newspaper Cutting

The trade in mistletoe grew and grew – built on the growing popularity of the kissing custom in the Victorian era and a desire, requirement even, for every home to have some mistletoe at Christmas.  This demand led to a massive trade in harvested mistletoe, mostly from apple orchards where it is easily cut.  And most of those orchards were, some still are, in the south west midlands of England and, of course, abroad in France where mistletoe grows abundantly.

1932 Newspaper Cutting

Stories of this trade are fascinating – it was very significant, with huge amounts being shipped by train around the country, across the channel from France and even, before the advent of air travel, shipped from Britain out to Australia, South Africa etc.  The ‘colonies’ wanted proper mistletoe, even if it was a few weeks in transit and a bit shrivelled on arrival.

These days the quantities traded are much smaller – though most is still cut from apple trees in SW English midland and French orchards.  Firm trade figures are almost impossible to obtain as so much is traded informally now – there are no tonnages for ships or railways, it’s just cut and freighted in lorries, vans and trailers with no documentation required.  The only regular source for trade figures is Tenbury Mistletoe Auction, but even this only give a small snapshot of the overall trade as only a fraction of the trade, and certainly none of the imported mistletoe (which is probably the majority), passes though here.  So, data from here shouldn’t be used in scientific analyses of the trade (you know what I’m talking about Jeff!).

But if there are no overall trade figures how can I say quantities have decreased? Well, technically I can’t, obviously.  But several factors suggest major change – not least the amount available to harvest is much less as there are far fewer suitable orchards here or abroad.  Another major factor is the much more laidback approach to kissing we have these days – mistletoe is no longer needed by many people for a quick smooch with a stranger!  And then there’s plastic mistletoe – a trend that’s grown alongside artificial Christmas Trees – why worry about buying the real thing when you can use the plastic imitation you hang every year, kept in the loft the rest of the time with the lights and baubles?

Stats are very hard to come by though – the National Trust recently announced that in a survey of 240 members, when asked what Christmas traditions they no longer took part in, 31% said they no longer hang mistletoe. A small sample but, if it is reflecting the wider population, that’s a third not using mistletoe at all.  And it’s not clear whether the other two-thirds use the real thing or plastic.

But that’s only a small sample, and just one survey.  I recall a survey back in 2007, apparently of 3000 people, which said 9% actually pick their own mistletoe – which sounds great and suggests a thriving tradition until you realise that most of Britain has hardly any mistletoe to pick, so it’s very unlikely 9% of people even have an opportunity to pick their own. There must have been something wrong with the wording of the question, or the interpreting of the results – unless all the respondents lived in the south-west midlands.  Statistics need to be treated with some caution!

And, talking of stats to be treated with caution here are the stats, so far, for the Tenbury Auctions this year, with corresponding stats from the same week in 2017 and 2018.  The most recent auction was yesterday but stats for that aren’t available yet.

  Mistletoe 1st Quality £/kg Mistletoe 2nd Quality £/kg
Tuesday 26th November 2019 1.50 to average 1.00 0.50 to average 0.30
Tuesday 27th November 2018 3.00 to average 1.75 1.00 to average 0.50
Tuesday 28th November 2017 2.50 to average 1.25 0.75 per kg to average 0.25

Make of that what you will – I would caution against any serious analysis – these are just indicators of prices at one venue.  The good stuff (1st quality) is the material with good ripe white berries and deep green leaves, the other (2nd quality) had, mostly, just as many berries but in that week some were underripe and not fully white and some had the leggy-ness or the yellower leaves that always reduce the value. The only major difference to last year’s mistletoe is, from appearances, slightly smaller berries overall and perhaps slightly later ripening (arguably causing those smaller berries).


The best way to ensure a good supply each year is to grow your own!
For Mistletoe Grow-Kits, Books and Cards
 visit the English Mistletoe Shop website at englishmistletoeshop.co.uk

More general mistletoe Information visit the Mistletoe Pages website.

Mistletoe Auction#1 2019 – lively bidding for lovely mistletoe

A good turn out of both people and mistletoe lots for today’s mistletoe auction at Tenbury Wells.  Mistletoe looking good, lots of berries, again, though perhaps not quite as plump as some previous years. A few lots had yellower leaves – which won’t fetch as good a price as the greener stuff. But there were masses of nice green stuff too.

Some lively bidding for lovely mistletoe!

Only two auctions this year – the second and last is next week, Tuesday 3rd December.

Slide show of scenes before and during below:

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More Mistletoe Information: for general mistletoe info visit the Mistletoe Pages website.

Mistletoe Grow-Kits, Books and Cards:  visit the English Mistletoe Shop website at englishmistletoeshop.co.uk

 

 

Not a mistletoe#1: not even a parasite

Viscum album – mistletoe – showing branching pattern

(the first of some blogs about mistletoe-themed plants)

The distinctive geometric branching of Viscum album, the classic mistletoe of legend, is one of its most distinguishing features. Each branch bifurcates once a year, creating an intricate pattern. Not all mistletoes have this property – for example the Phoradendron species used at Christmas in the US don’t – they look really quite ordinary, not like the European plant at all.

Mistletoe Cactus – Rhipsalis baccifera

But a few other plants do have a similar pattern – though they aren’t mistletoe. The best-known of these are, perhaps, species of Rhipsalis the so-called ‘Mistletoe Cacti’.

Mistletoe Cactus with fruit

There are about 35 species of Rhipsalis, all true cacti with leaves reduced to spines and thick photosynthetic stems, some flattened but some cylindrical.  It is the cylindrical-stemmed ones that are known as the mistletoe cacti as these stems, when they divide, seem to echo the growth of our mistletoe Viscum album.  Their fruits even look vaguely like mistletoe berries.

These are ‘jungle cacti’ from Central and South America, with several forms and species popular as house plants.  Some are quite ‘hairy’ with fine spines coating the stems but others are virtually spine free. One of the commonest seen is Rhipsalis baccifera which, in its baldest, most spine/hairless form, is quite distinctive.

Some other Rhipsalis species

They are easily grown from stem fragments, though these take a while to root.  Here (below) is my current specimen, grown from three tiny stem fragments I picked up from the ground underneath a neglected garden centre specimen some months ago (I know a bargain when I spot one!)

No flowers yet, so no berries, but it’s now growing rapidly so I hope for some soon next year…