My recent post about the new mistletoe-eating bird in Borneo reminded me of several other exotic (to us in Britain) mistletoe stories. One particular story from last year came to mind – a project in New Zealand where local residents were being given mistletoe seeds in an effort to re-establish local mistletoe species.
The project, based in Christchurch, involved the collection of seeds by local ecologists and then the doling out of 20 seeds each to local volunteers, for them to plant onto suitable hosts, especially in gardens. Participants were asked to monitor their seeds to assess success, or failure.
It’s a curious concept – but one which has echoes over here – I’ve worked with many UK conservation groups trying to get mistletoe established in parks and nature reserves –mainly in the east of England, where our mistletoe is relatively uncommon. Including some very well-known parks and a few palace gardens. And of course I’ve been involved in garden mistletoe plantings for many years, both directly and through provision of mistletoe grow-kits online.
The trick, which will probably apply to NZ as well as UK mistletoe, is to remember where (i.e which branch, and whereabouts on the branch) you planted the seeds and to be patient, as initial growth is slow and it may be several years before you get a growth of any size. I’ve lost count of the number of people who write to me, several years after planting, saying they are astonished to find their mistletoe is growing – they assumed, because they had overlooked the initial small growths, that they had failed, but actually they’d been very successful.
I’m not sure how quickly those NZ species grow – but having looked up the story again I see that 2018 was the second year of the project – I wonder whether that’s a reflection of the same problem, establishment after just one year is difficult to assess, so people try again. Although, on reading the news story published in 2018 it seems that 200 new plants had been recorded as established the year before, so perhaps those NZ species establish more quickly than ours!
The Christchurch project was led by Kristina Macdonald, an ecologist with Christchurch City Council – there’s a video with her explaining the project below. Note that she stresses the value of the plant for gardens – both as an attractive plant and as a resource for other species. For info on the original 2017 initiative click here and for the 2018 follow-up click here. As far as I’m aware this project is now completed.
You don’t have to be in NZ to grow mistletoe in your garden.
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]
In previous years I’ve reported on the 6 mistletoe insects we have in Britain – and how we know very little about them. Indeed 2 of the 6 were only discovered here in the years since 2000 and the distribution and biology of all 6 are hardly known. But all are definitely tied to mistletoe, as they eat nothing else (except the Anthocoris bug, which eats the others).
The six are: a moth Celypha woodiana (the Mistletoe Marble Moth), a beetle Ixapion variegatum (the Mistletoe Weevil), three sap-sucking bugs Hypseloecus visci, Pinalitus viscicola and Cacopsylla visci and the predatory bug Anthocoris visci
The weevil lays its eggs inside mistletoe stems and the larva develops inside, only emerging as an adult weevil and leaving a distinctive exit hole. Affected shoots often show die-back of the terminal bud. And that’s about all that is known about it. A simple life-cycle, no complications. Or none known.
However, a recent paper by Ian Thompson and Godfrey Blunt in Field Studies journal recording studies of invertebrate communities in Shropshire orchards makes an intriguing observation. The authors made a special effort to record mistletoe insects within the orchards they visited, including collecting some mistletoe shoots with bud die-back to see if weevils emerged. Some weevils did indeed emerge from some of the samples. But from others a tiny parasitic wasp emerged instead of the weevil. It was from a genus of wasps, Triaspis, that specialises in parasitising the eggs and larvae of beetles.
The obvious inference is that this wasp was parasitising the Mistletoe Weevil larvae. The wasp proved impossible to identify to species – and so may, itself, be newly discovered and might, perhaps, be a dedicated specialist only parasitising the Mistletoe Weevil. Which only eats mistletoe, itself a parasite.
So we could have a new species and a new parasite – of an insect that eats a parasite.
The first of this season’s mistletoe auctions is happening on Tuesday morning – and I’m guessing that a lot of stock has already arrived on site, with more coming tomorrow. This is ‘proper’ traditional mistletoe, gathered from the old apple orchards across Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. If you want to attend you’ll need to be at Burford House Garden Stores, Burford, Tenbury Wells, WR15 8HQ on Tuesday morning. And you’ll have another chance on the following two Tuesdays.
This traditional mistletoe is, of course, the mistletoe species native to northern Europe, and the only species we have in Britain. It is the origin of all those myths and legends about mistletoe and the true mistletoe of Christmas kissing.
But there are many other mistletoes around – and in places where they don’t have Viscum album, other mistletoe species are substituted at Christmas. It’s arguably cheating, as it is our species that the kissing tradition belongs too, but it’s fun – and why not consider all mistletoes as kissing plants?
The harvest of these other mistletoes is also underway – particularly, as usual, in Texas where the Phoradendron mistletoes take the place of Viscum album, growing on Mesquite trees instead on Apple. Texas has a long tradition of sending its mistletoe across the USA and every year there are stories about the harvest and how it’s looking.