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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Almost November, so time to look at how mistletoe is looking for Christmas this year. And, again (this is several years in a row now) it’s looking fairly good. The female plants I’ve looked at are festooned with berries and it would seem we have yet another ‘bumper crop’.
Of course it’s not a crop, not in the conventional sense of something grown for harvest, as most simply grows where it wants to and isn’t actively encouraged. But in areas and habitats where it grows well – primarily the SW midlands in mature (often over-mature) apple orchards – it can seem like a crop, and certainly can be harvested like one.
One unusual aspect this season is that many of the berries are whitening up already – whereas they normally stay green well into November. Why, I don’t know, but it does seem consistent with many other berries and fruits ripening earlier than usual this year. So far it’s only whitening from green, the later change from opaque white to translucent white usually only happens in December/January, so it will be interesting to see if that is early this year too.
First wholesale auctions of apple orchard mistletoe are at the end of November – I’ll report then on how the plants have matured, and what prices are like.
Berkeley Power Station, the UK’s first commercial nuclear power plant, sits on the edge of the River Severn in Gloucestershire. Opened in 1962 and closed in 1989 it still dominates the area, though it is now in advanced stages of decommission. And it is surrounded by mistletoe, as this is the nucleus (geddit??) of UK mistletoe country.
Its sister Oldbury (operating 1967-2012, famous for featuring in Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who episodes) is visible a little further down river. Hinckley Point A (1965-2000) & B (1976 to date) are well over the horizon to the south, as is the controversial part-built Hinckley Point C (20??- )
Berkeley Castle, just up the road, is at the opposite extreme of modernity, lived in by the same family since the 12th Century.
But back to the mistletoe – this is the Severn Vale, home of most of Gloucestershire’s mistletoe, growing in old orchards, parkland lime trees and riverside poplars – as well as lots of other habitats and hosts. And, last Saturday, we took advantage of a sunny day (merging effortlessly into grey rain later) to walk a circuit from Bevington, just south of Berkeley town, along the high ridge of Whitcliff Deer Park, into Berkeley town, out onto the riverside at the Power Station and along the floodwall before turning back inland.
At first, not much mistletoe –the southern end of Whitcliff Park is planted with Beech and Oak, neither particularly good for mistletoe. But further north there is the inevitable line of Lime trees, typical of English Parkland and festooned with mistletoe. Further on, in the vale itself there is a glorious excess of mistletoe on many of the road and streamside (aka drainage ditch-side) Poplars with yet more out by the Power Station site. It makes for some interesting landscapes. Nothing to do with the Power Station, obviously, but did berries glow in the winter sun more than usual?
Some pictures, some with captions, below…
Lastly, some mistletoe links – for general mistletoe info visit the Mistletoe Pages website.