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]
Turdus ipse sibi malum cacat, an old latin proverb, relates directly to mistletoe, and to the capture of birds. It translates as ‘the thrush excretes its own trouble (or death)’ and is all about Birdlime, a sticky substance once used widely to capture small birds. One of the traditional, and perhaps fundamental, ingredients of Birdlime, was mistletoe, especially the sticky juice form the berries. The proverb is about mistle thrushes, eating mistletoe berries and creating long strings of sticky turds, formed of semi-digested mistletoe gunk, very similar to manufactured birdlime.
It seems an odd concept now, the idea of taking a load of mistletoe berries to make a gluey paste to then capture birds. Why and how would it be done? And how long ago did this start? The latin saying has origins over 2000 years ago, with early attributions including Plautus (254-184 BC) and slightly later ones to Athenaeus (2nd-3rd century AD). It was repeated in various forms over the centuries, notably by Erasmus (1466-1536) in his Adagia (c 1500). This antiquity does raise some questions over which thrush and which mistletoe is meant (Plautus was based in Italy, 2200 years ago) but, putting that aside, it does seem to make sense – if birdlime is indeed made from mistletoe berries.
As for why and how, the why is to capture birds for food or, sometimes, for caged birds. The how is simple – smearing the birdlime onto branches, sometimes with a a tethered captured bird to lure others in. It sounds old and barbaric – and it is. But it is also an ongoing phenomenon in some countries around the world, including, apparently, in Europe (see this story from 2007). The indiscriminate nature of this trapping method was and is a particularly nasty aspect. Spain continued (and possibly still does continue) the practice until recently – a 2004 EU review of the legality is outlined here and some more news on this from 2006 is outlined here.
But, getting back to the Birdlime itself, was this really made from mistletoe and if so was it really from the berries? That’s certainly what the proverb implies – but in reality many Birdlime recipes exist and mistletoe isn’t often a major ingredient. Interestingly (just to keep a seasonal theme!) Holly bark is a major ingredient in many European recipes, boiled up to create a sticky mess. Slippery Elm bark appears in US recipes. Mistletoe also features in these recipes, but some refer to Loranthus europeaus, the yellow berried (and disappointingly deciduous!) mistletoe of central southern Europe. Plautus might have known that mistletoe better than our white-berried Viscum album.
So whilst mistletoe was an ingredient it may never have been the primary one, and it may not even have been our mistletoe. But let’s not let that get in the way of a good story…
My favourite version from the historic accounts isn’t Plautus, but good old Aesop (620 – 564 BC) in his fables, where the story is referenced in the fable ‘The Owl and the Birds’. This isn’t, probably, an Aesop original but one of the many added in later editions, so it is not as old as his dates imply. You only find it in some of the longer compilations, and even then the mistletoe story is only mentioned as part of a general warning to the birds of other risks. Here’s the story from the Folio Society version:
There’s a lot more to say about Birdlime – I’ll post Birdlime #2 in a few days…
‘Turdus’ – the latin name for thrushes, can sound a little rude. But it’s simply the latin word for thrush and therefore perfectly apt. Nothing to do with ‘turd’, which means excrement. But making the link is inevitable – and many people snigger when told that a Blackbird’s latin name is Turdus merula, a Song Thrush Turdus philomelos, a Redwing Turdus iliacus, a Fieldfare Turdus pilaris or a Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus. So much turdus!
That last one, the Mistle Thrush, actually produces quite important turds, so its turdiness seems particularly apt. And those significant turds are all about, you guessed it, mistletoe. That’s where the viscivorus part of its latin name comes from – it is ‘Viscum-eating’ and Viscum album is mistletoe.
A Mistle Thrush eating mistletoe berries produces mistletoey turds – sticky strings of semi-digested mistletoe berries complete with completely undigested mistletoe seeds, just waiting to germinate on a host tree branch.
The turds of Turdus viscivorus are especially critical for mistletoe to spread. This is particularly so because very few other birds seem to want to eat mistletoe – the berries aren’t brightly coloured so seem less attractive, and any bird that does try one will find it contains one inconveniently large seed (which won’t be digested) set in a mucilaginous glue that can mess up a dainty beak for some time. Mistletoe berry eaters have to be determined – they are effectively eating glue – and not many birds want to do that.
Turd production is just the first step for mistletoe seeds of course – which rely on their remaining (post-digestion) natural stickiness to attach to a branch. Mistletoe seeds need that branch – and if the turd misses a branch the seeds are doomed.
Even when the turd hits a branch most seeds will fail, as they will dangle uselessly below it in a string of sticky mucilage. The process is, literally, a very hit and miss affair. But it does give rise to yet another name – ‘mistletoe’ itself. This is usually attributed to the Old English word ‘misteltan’, a combination of ‘mistel’ meaning Dung (or turd!) and ‘tan’ meaning twig. Literally Dung on a Twig. Aren’t names wonderful?
If you want to see some good Mistle Thrush turds, now is the time to start looking! Mistletoe berries tend not to be eaten in quantity until mid-winter onwards (sometimes remaining uneaten well into spring) so the season has only just started, but is well underway. I was out in an apple orchard near home this afternoon and saw several fresh mistletoe-laden turds, probably from Mistle Thrushes but maybe from Fieldfares or Redwings – other thrushes who behave in a similar way.
Be wary though. A Mistle Thrush guards its berry patch and only strays a few metres away for a quick crap so it can return asap. And it usually travels exactly the same few metres.
Which leads to the creation of a Thrush toilet area – a part of the tree where the thrush craps repeatedly. These areas can be hazardous – with multiple strings of sticky excreted mistletoe seeds hanging down – and almost invisible until you walk into them… Sticky thrush turds in your face are not pleasant! So do look where you’re going if you’re wandering around a mistletoe-laden apple orchard in the next few weeks.
It is worth noting, by the way, that the common name, ‘Mistle Thrush’, is thought to be an Anglicisation of the latin name – and not really a traditional name for the bird at all. More traditional names include Storm Cock, Char Cock and Skirl Cock – which relate to the species’ harsh call, in all weathers, not to its eating habits. And actually, when you think about it, why should it be named after its mistletoe eating at all? Particularly in Britain. ‘Mistle Thrushes’ occur all over Britain, and eat all sorts of berries. But mistletoe has a fairly restricted distribution in the sw midlands. Most British Mistle Thrushes will never, therefore, experience any mistletoe-eating. Which seems odd, bearing in mind mistletoe’s apparent dependence on the thrushes…
Next time in Mistletoe Diary – re-visiting the story of the Eastern European Blackcaps – birds which migrate over here in increasing numbers (regardless of any referendum!) and eat our mistletoe berries, in a completely different way to thrushes…
You don’t have to excrete berries to grow mistletoe! You can just try a Grow Kit from the English Mistletoe Shop….
The French have a lot more mistletoe than we do here in Britain – their climate is better suited to it, and it is a common sight in many regions (though also, as in Britain, utterly absent from some parts). That abundance doesn’t lessen its mysteriousness though – there are many French traditions and customs relating to le Gui. It was once (and possibly still is) especially valued as a un Porte-Bonheur, a Good Luck Charm.
But our kissing tradition, traditionally a feature of English-speaking countries, is widespread in France too these days, possibly masking some of their other traditions. It all gets a bit confusing.
Now that we Brits, at least à ce moment (Brexit clouds the future a little), have a tendency to go and live in France, there are, here and there, some English-language magazines. One of which is The Quercy Local , which covers the ‘Quercy’ region of SW France (parts of the Lot, Lot et Garonne, Tarn et Garonne and Dordogne departments).
Their Winter Issue for 2016/17 has mistletoe on the cover and includes a rather good mistletoe feature, by editor Anna Atkinson, plus an article on mistletoe’s specialist berry-eating birds, the Mistle Thrush and the Blackcap, by Martin George.
And, in their ‘Seasonal Romantic Gifts’ section, they feature my Mistletoe Book – and Grow-Kits – both available from, as always, the English Mistletoe Shop. Thanks, Quercy Local!
Interested in leafing through it (there’s a lot more than just mistletoe, and much inspiration if you’re a Francophile)? You can read it online here.
More Mistletoe Matters – links to mistletoey things to read, buy or do
How far west can mistletoe grow in Britain? The main population is in the south-west English Midlands, overlapping into eastern-most Wales in Monmouthshire. But despite this being western-ish (this is definitely west of Britain’s geographic centre) it is not really a western plant, being quite rare in Devon and Cornwall, and in the rest of Wales. There are a few isolated populations, here and there, but they can be hard to find.
And those odd populations may not be ‘wild’ as they are so far outside the species natural range they are probably planted, though often many decades ago. Indeed a few are known to be over 100 years-old, the date of planting being known, with the whole colony arising from that one historic action.
I’m always on the look-out for new examples and so was very pleased (and surprised!) to come across a new one today, on old apple trees in the walled garden of Llanerchaeron, near Aberaeron in Ceredigion. When I say ‘new’ I mean new to me, I’m sure the National Trust, who run the place, are already well aware that they have mistletoe. But it was a particularly interesting find for me, as it is very western indeed, possibly one of the most western I know.
Aberaeron itself is way out west, with the Llanerchaeron estate a little to its east, and today’s mistletoe is at UK grid reference SN480601. That’s an Easting of 2480, which is most definitely a very western Easting. How does this compare to other western mistletoe populations? Fairly well actually. The most obvious one to compare it to is the small population at Cotehele, another National Trust-owned historic estate, away south in England on the Cornish/Devon border, overlooking the Tamar Estuary. The mistletoe there is acknowledged to be some of Britain’s most western. But could today’s mistletoe be even further west? Has the west just been won by Llanerchaeron mistletoe?
Back to grid-references and calculations… The mistletoe at Cotehele, also on old apple trees, is at SX422685, which makes an Easting of 2422. This means, ever-so-slightly-disappointingly, that today’s mistletoe doesn’t win. Cotehele is 5.8 kilometres further west. Cotehele wins, but not by much.
And was today’s mistletoe natural – i.e a wild population? I doubt it. It’s in a classic location for planting, a big country estate with an apple orchard. Plus the plants don’t look very old, maybe less than 20 years, and I know that some NT staff have been planting it here and there.
The Cotehele population is fairly recently established and perhaps this one is too. Though you can never be too sure of these things. There are remnant historic orchards in the Tamar valley near Cotehele that have a little mistletoe, and there is mistletoe in gardens just upstream at Calstock and across the river at Tamerton. Which was there first? All are very close together as the Mistle Thrush flies.
That’s the situation as I understand it near Cotehele, so perhaps there’s more in the area around Aberaeron…. I’ll have to come back when the trees have lost their leaves…
Edited to add:
A map, for those who are unsure where these places are… The two red crosses mark the two sites, the top one is Aberaeron and the lower one Cotehele. Locations are only approximate on this scale!
Commercial break… East or West, why not grow your own mistletoe?
If you want to grow your own mistletoe, east or west, a good way to start is with a mistletoe grow-kit from the English Mistletoe Shop…
Last week’s storms brought down yet more mistletoe-laden trees in our local orchards, and I went to look at a few in yesterday’s sunshine. None of the casualties were a surprise – they were all old, neglected apple trees, with far too much mistletoe on them for long-term survival. The storms have (probably) just accelerated some already inevitable deaths.
Nevertheless it is always upsetting to see these trees down, especially in the location pictured here, where most of the orchard is already gone and it can only be a few years now until they’ve all gone. There’s no orchard replanting scheme here, this is a farm outside the (sometimes unreal) world of conservation projects, and it is struggling to survive, the tenant farmer has been given notice to leave and, in the long-term, housing seems the most likely fate for the site.
I’m never sure what the pre-dominant emotion should be – to be sad at the inevitable passing of these old orchards or to be glad to have known them before they went.
But whether sad or glad, a fallen mistletoe-laden tree is a wonderful opportunity to see mistletoe from a new perspective, and I did quite enjoy my exploration among the branches yesterday. The haustorial connections – where the mistletoe distorts the host branch – could be seen at close quarters, the branching patterns properly examined, and rough aging estimated for each clump.
The mistletoe flowers are just beginning to open too – though not on the mistletoe on fallen trees, their buds remain shut and that mistletoe is dying. But on the live mistletoe on upright trees the female and male flowers were just beginning to crack open, with a hint of nectar showing in some. No pollinating insects yet though – I think the local bees need more than a single day of sunshine to be persuaded out after the weather of the last 2 months!
Plenty of evidence of birds though – with the usual but always fascinating strings of mistletoe seeds hanging here and there – which are a sure sign of mistle thrush digestive activity.
And evidence of larger animals too, with all the mistletoe leaves grazed off the lowest growths on the fallen trees.
This is despite mistletoe’s modern reputation as poisonous. In truth it is highly prized by grazing animals – when they can reach it – and has a long tradition, in old agricultural practices, as a winter feed. In this location the culprits were probably deer, though sheep and cattle will do exactly the same when they can.