Mistletoe Season 2020 – this year with added Covid…

gasmaskmistletoephotoSo here we go again, another mistletoe season on the horizon.  But can mistletoe work its magic with Covid-19 restrictions?  Will kissing a stranger be a possibility this season?  Is a quick snog with a friend achievable? We shall see. Though I think I can predict much of the answer already!

But whatever happens I’m fairly confident people will still be celebrating with and hanging up mistletoe.  Even if those mistletoe kisses end up being reduced to mistletoe elbow bumps or mistletoe foot foot waggling.  It could be interesting.  And it’s the concept that counts – and this year the kissing may well be only conceptual.

Mistletoe events this year are, not surprisingly, fewer than normal.  Nearly all my own bookings for evening events have been cancelled and I’m expecting the remaining ones to be closed soon .

And the Tenbury Wells Mistletoe Festival has been cancelled too.  As have many other mistletoe-themed events up and down the country.

The Mistletoe Auctions at Tenbury Wells are still on – this year on Tuesdays 24th November and Tuesday 1st December.  Details of those at https://nickchampion.co.uk/auctions/holly-and-mistletoe/

And mistletoe commerce online is continuing too – for instance we’re now open for Mistletoe Grow-Kit and Gift Card orders at the English Mistletoe Shop.

So all is not lost – and I’ll be blogging about mistletoe on and off through the season.  I’m also working on two formal papers reviewing mistletoe in Britain – and will report on progress of those as they develop.  More soon….

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…

 

Is a Mistletoe Market about mistletoe?

Or just a generic Christmassy-themed retail-fest?

The phrase Mistletoe Market is fairly uncommon here in the UK – the mistletoe auctions at Tenbury Wells are sometimes called this, but not often.  We also have a few Mistletoe Fairs – some more mistletoey than others (of which more in another post soon) – but we have few events formally called a Mistletoe Market.

But cross the atlantic and the US is brimming with ‘mistletoe markets’, some lasting just a day or so, some lasting weeks, some as early as November, some not until nearer Christmas.  These are real, regular, pre-Christmas phenomena.

So what are they, and where, if at all, does mistletoe feature?  Mistletoe in the US is, as regular Mistletoe Diary readers will know, a different and much less attractive species than the species we have here in Europe, so it would be surprising if these markets were actually about mistletoe – the local species aren’t really special enough!

And of course they’re not about mistletoe, the word is used as a label for a seasonal pre-Christmas retail event.  But that doesn’t matter – it’s still a reflection of mistletoe as a cultural plant, harking back centuries, possibly millennia, to mid-winter customs with the plant.

Many of these Mistletoe Markets are run by good causes – Junior Leagues, Schools and other community groups. Others are run by city authorities and a few seem to be firmly commercially-run.

Some (fairly random) examples:

Marietta, Georgia
Marietta, Georgia

Marietta, Georgia – raising funds for community programs

Mistletoe Market is returning, Junior League of Cobb-Marietta is excited for the return of the beloved holiday shopping event.  We are thrilled to bring back the spirit of Mistletoe Market, raising funds to support many community service programs. You can’t go wrong by Shopping Small and For a Cause!  Mistletoe Market will be bringing together 50 plus specialty merchants from across the Southeast. Join us as we get the holiday season started!


Oklahoma City (Oklahoma’s state flower used to be mistletoe!) – raising funds to (their caps not mine) EMPOWER volunteers to IMPACT our community and ENRICH lives.

Mistletoe Market is Oklahoma City’s premier shopping event featuring unique merchandise from more than 100 carefully selected vendors from Oklahoma and across the country. Shop for clothing, gourmet foods, gifts, children’s items, jewelry and more – we promise you’ll find everything you need and more!

Mistletoe Market raises funds to support the mission of the Junior League of Oklahoma City. Proceeds from Mistletoe Market go to fund the Junior League of Oklahoma City’s health-based community projects in the Oklahoma City metro and helps the Junior League send trained volunteers into the community.

Thanks to the dollars raised at Mistletoe Market since 1994, JLOC has been able to distribute more than $1.5 million to Oklahoma City through funding of community projects!


Franklin, Tennessee, raising funds for Franklin High School Class of 2019 Project Graduation

Mistletoe Market is Franklin High School’s Christmas seasonal warm-up event, featuring crafts, gifts, decor and treats.

More than 135 vendors will be on hand from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. on Saturday Nov 10 at the school, 810 Hillsboro Road, Franklin.

Free parking and free admission.

 

Grove City, Ohio, raising funds for the Grove City Food Pantry

The Mistletoe Market will run from 10am to 6pm on December 7, 2019.  Reminiscent of the German Kristkindl Market, this festive Holiday Shopping Market brings old world charm & warmth to Grove City’s Historic Town Center

Breakfast with Santa. Come to these Festive Market Spaces for your unique, one of a kind, Holiday Gift Shopping
• In Town Center Businesses
• Inside City Hall’s Council Chambers & Lobby
Find Selected Retailers & Fine Crafters for Exclusive Holiday Gift Items & Winter Wares


Huntingdon, West Virginia, raising funds to promote physical and mental wellness for women and children

The Junior League of Huntington’s Mistletoe Market is a one-day shopping event that kicks off the holiday shopping season. Proceeds from this event help us with our initiatives on promoting physical and mental wellness for women and children. Mistletoe Market 2019 will be held at the Ramada Limited located at 3094 16th Street Road in Huntington, WV on Friday, November 8th from 4:00 pm-10:00 pm. If you purchase a VIP ticket you are granted early access from 4:00 pm-6:00 pm along with a wine glass full of coupons.


Abingdon, Virginia, supporting the William King Museum of Art with proceeds benefiting curatorial and educational programs

Mistletoe Market celebrates its 21st anniversary on October 31 – November 3, 2019 at Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center. Highlights of the Market include $500 in shopping spree opportunities, Mistletoe Market Cafe, and daily door prizes. Over 80 Merchants from 15 states bring a variety of items including: gifts for the gardener in your family, jewelry including earrings, bracelets and necklaces, holiday decor, clothing, and antiques. In addition to our cafe there are gourmet food vendors with fantastic holiday treats and food trucks to keep your energy high as you shop til’ you drop.


Houston, Texas – a commercially-run event

Shop till you drop at the Midtown Mistletoe Market. This destination, high energy NYC style holiday inspired market features contemporary craft, makers, fine foods, lots of activities, DIY gift stations, live entertainment and artists selling their original and series works, located in the heart of Midtown Houston in Midtown Park. Look for the beautiful outdoor setting with custom made red and white tents and holiday décor. Sip, stop and play Santa is on his way.


These are just a few – have a google if you want to find out about all the others!

Here in the UK we seem to call similar events (though we don’t actually have many of them) Mistletoe Fairs – I’ll say more about those another time.


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

And for UK mistletoe books, cards or kits to grow your own mistletoe visit the English Mistletoe Shop website at englishmistletoeshop.co.uk

The Spectacled Flowerpecker – a new bird that likes mistletoe

Picture by Chien C Lee

Ten years ago, deep in the Borneo rainforest, a new species of bird was spotted feeding on berries from one of the local mistletoe species.  Small, grey but quite pretty it was given the name Spectacled Flowerpecker – but not, at the time, a formal scientific name because that needs formal examination and description – which means a bird in the hand, not in the bush.

The preliminary announcements about it in 2010 hailed it as a perfect example of how little we still know about the species of our planet and how diverse biodiversity actually is.

The canopy level walkways where the bird can be spotted. Picture by Chien C Lee

Fast-forward 10 years, to 2019, and this little bird still hadn’t been formally described and named.  Primarily because it is so small, just 2 inches tall, and is so difficult to spot, let alone capture.  It feeds largely in the forest canopy up amongst the mistletoe plants whose berries it eats – most sightings have been from the forest walkways erected in the canopy as a new form of ecotourism. Click here for a blog describing some 2017 sightings.  An account on the Audubon website describes the difficulties in documenting it.

This year, 2019, a specimen was finally caught, an incidental capture as part of a wider study with mist nets, and so it was properly documented and given a formal scientific name: Dicaeum dayakorum.  The specific part is in honour of the indigenous Dayak people who live in and help protect the bird’s native forests.  Here’s the header (click to enlarge) from the formal paper describing it – the full paper is at https://www.biotaxa.org/Zootaxa/article/view/zootaxa.4686.4.1

The genus Dicaeum, by the way, includes numerous other species of flowerpecker, many also feeding on mistletoes.  These include the Australian Mistletoe Bird Dicaeum hirundinaceum which featured in one of the BBC TV’s  David Attenborough natural history series some years ago. The broadcast clip showed a bird wiping the semi-digested mistletoe berry, complete with seed, from it’s er, bum, onto a branch. Very efficient. It’s not clear whether the Spectacled Flowerpecker is that good or whether it’s more of a hit’n’miss mistletoe spreader like our own Mistle Thrush (see various older mistletoe diary entries …).

 

Mistletoe seed distribution – why leave it all to the birds?

Try doing it yourself with a Mistletoe Grow-Kit from the English Mistletoe Shop

Details at  https://englishmistletoeshop.co.uk