(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.
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’.
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.
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…
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.
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 hirundinaceumwhich 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?
The main Festival Day, complete with Druid Ceremony is on Saturday 7th December.
For Mistletoe Diary this year I hope (do I say this every year?) to cover a wide range of issues – including some interesting ecological points, comparisons with other parasitic plants, and, amongst other cultural angles, re-visiting mistletoe in Art Nouveau designs. This phenomenon was a particular feature of continental European design and I hope discussing these will help (me at least), in a very modest way, assuage some of the current crazy UK v continental Europe tensions.
So here, to kick off, is one of the plates from Edmond Lachenal’s mistletoe dinner service, designed for subscribers to Les Annales Politiques et Littéraires in the late 1890s.
This is just a teaser pic for now, I’ll say more about Monsieur Lachenal as the season progresses…
Very busy with mistletoe stuff this season – I’ve got loads of things to blog about but am having a bit of difficulty finding the time…
I usually post a summary of the wholesale mistletoe prices at the Tenbury Wells Auctions – so here, for the record, are this year’s figures, taken from Nick Champion’s reports:
Tuesday 27th November 2018 Mistletoe 1st Quality to £3.00 per kg to average £1.75
Mistletoe 2nd Quality to £1.00 per kg to average £0.50
Tuesday 4th December 2018
Mistletoe 1st Quality to £6.00 per kg to average £3.50
Mistletoe 2nd Quality to £2.50 per kg to average £1.50
Tuesday 11th December 2018 Mistletoe 1st Quality to £4.00 per kg to average £2.50
Mistletoe 2nd Quality to £1.00 per kg to average £0.50
Compare these to 2017’s prices, which were much lower. 2018’s sales, to use Nick Champion’s words, “saw a terrific trade on best quality lots”
Tuesday 28th November 2017 Mistletoe 1st Quality to £2.50 per kg to average £1.25
Mistletoe 2nd Quality to £0.75p per kg to average £0.25p
Tuesday 5th December 2017 Mistletoe 1st Quality to £3.00 per kg to average £1.50
Mistletoe 2nd Quality to £1.00 per kg to average £0.50p
Tuesday 12th December 2017 Mistletoe 1st Quality to £1.50 per kg to average £0.75p
Mistletoe 2nd Quality to £0.50 per kg to average £0.25p
As usual do note these are wholesale prices for freshly cut mistletoe – the retail price will be much higher as the material needs to be sorted, a lot of it discarded (there’s a lot of waste in mistletoe!) and the best bits trimmed and prepared for sale. The retail price will largely reflect the time taken to do all that.
Mistletoe berries need bees – a fact that’s often overlooked when people talk about the ‘crop’. They interpret berry numbers as being a function of the recent summer or autumn weather, and barely give a thought to their real origin – from flowers that need to be pollinated.
Flowers that open in February. And need to be pollinated by insects – bees especially. It’s the amount of pollination that determines the number of berries – and that depends on bees and other insects in February.
This comes up again and again when I give talks on mistletoe – which I’ve been doing a lot recently – when I explain how slow-growing mistletoe is; the flower buds slowly developing in the year before, opening in February and, if pollinated, developing oh so slowly over 10-12 months to produce mature berries. By which time there are new flower buds ready for the new season. Berries may be a year old before they are fully ripe.
Getting back to the bees I was pleased to see the Friends of the Earth ‘Christmas Bee Saver Kit’ yesterday – which they’ll send you in return for a donation. Why pleased? Because it features a picture of mistletoe complete with mistletoe flower buds, right next to a bee. It just seemed a nice touch.
Whether it is deliberate (with FoE knowing their mistletoe biology) or just an accident of a Christmas-themed design (with FoE just commissioning a seasonal design) I don’t know. But I like it either way.
[the flower buds are the central buds between the leaves]
Berries need birds – or people – too, to get their seeds planted. If you want to have a go try a mistletoe growing kit from the English Mistletoe Shop
As part of the Tenbury Wells Mistletoe Festival 2018 a new children’s book, The Kissing Tree, has been published, written by local author Helen Wendy Cooper. It is part of the Tenbury Mistletoe Association’s promotions this season.
The story centres on Jack the Jackdaw who is searching for the perfect tree for mistletoe to grow on – but is thwarted by a Robin that eats all his mistletoe berries. An imaginative and educational book for children, showing how mistletoe needs a tree to grow on and that berries/seeds are spread by birds. So far so good.
My only complaint, which mistletoe advocates may well have anticipated already, is that neither Jackdaws or Robins generally eat mistletoe berries! Now if it had been “Mike the Mistle Thrush” being thwarted by a mischievous Blackcap that would have been fine. And even appropriate, as Blackcaps ARE usurping Mistle Thrushes as distributors of mistletoe. So there is a real life story that could be referenced here.
So, educational in telling how mistletoe grows on trees and is spread by birds, but, sadly, suggesting entirely the wrong birds.
[of course you don’t need a bird, you can plant the seeds yourself – find out how here or buy a Grow-Your-Own Kit here]