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.
Spring is just about here, which means it’s almost the end of mistletoe berrying – cutting berries for propagation projects and for the mistletoe grow-kit business – for this season. Which is always something of a relief, after 6 months of life dominated by mistletoe queries, projects and talking, cutting, gathering, planting etc. Though I expect, after many years experience, that this will, as usual, make for a disconcertingly directionless few weeks at the start of April.
But for the next 2 weeks the season goes on mainly, at this late stage, simply servicing the grow-kit demand, cutting berries to send out to wannabe mistletoe growers around the country. I say cutting, not picking, as we find that picked berries become, through being picked, damaged, with broken skin and oozing berry contents. And those deteriorate quickly, as well as just becoming a glutinous mess if posted en masse. So every berry is actually cut, using those tiny scissors made for florists, to retain a little bit of stalk, thereby keeping the berry intact.
This is done with bunches of mistletoe cut from the tree, so it can be done in relative comfort indoors. But it does create an interesting new ‘leaning forward’ neck-ache, to add to the ‘craning-upwards’ neck-ache already prevalent after spending hours staring upwards and stretching to cut the mistletoe from the tree with an extending pruning pole.
The seeds in the berries are, by now, itching to germinate, with the hypocotyl primordia showing as a small but prominent bulge on the seed. Within a few weeks any not planted will simply germinate within the berry, still on the parent plant – in a defiant final , but in their case pointless, effort to survive. By May any berries left on the parent will contain these tragic might-have-been mistletoes, their hypocotyls hopelessly extended and seeking a host branch yet doomed through being stuck, literally, within their own berry.
But this isn’t the fate of the seeds from the berries in the grow-kits – they’re the lucky ones, being sent out to be formally introduced to their new hosts…
Christmas may be the time we admire mistletoe and its white berries, but February and March are when mistletoe berries are properly ripe. The Christmas tradition is two months early – NOW is the time to have a look at those berries and their lovely sticky green seeds.
Which is precisely what we’re doing here at Mistletoe Matters, combining some mistletoe management work with some mistletoe propagation work – every berried branch that’s cut at this time of year has the potential to create many more mistletoe plants.
In the long-term. Those berries and their seeds may be ripe just now, but the germinating seeds will take several years to produce a decent-sized mistletoe plant. First and second year growths are so tiny that they are easily overlooked.
I regularly get enquiries from people who planted mistletoe seeds a couple of years ago and assume they’ve failed, as they don’t have a ‘big’ mistletoe bush yet. And emails from people who have suddenly noticed mistletoe growing in their tree, the one they planted seeds on 4 or more years previously. What a coincidence they say! Er, no, that’s entirely to be expected, I reply.
The next few weeks really are the second phase of the mistletoe season for mistletoe enthusiasts, after a (well-earned) break in January. I’ll be posting more soon…
Some interesting (well I think so) mistletoe coverage here and there on the radio recently – including more local radio interviews for me (today I did BBC Radio Suffolk again, for the second time this season, and Suffolk has hardly any mistletoe) and a slot on BYU Radio, a talk radio station based at Brigham Young University, Utah but broadcasting widely via satellite and the web.
The BYU interview was unusual – not simply because it was a US-based station – but because the station is so scholarly and particularly as the interview was in Julie Rose’s 2-hour long Top of Mind show which features ‘Smart, informative conversations and interviews that go beyond mere headlines and sound bites’. Nothing as trivial as a two minute chat on a BBC local radio breakfast show – instead it is structured as extended one-to-one conversations with a guest on topical matters.
Yesterday’s edition of Top of Mind featured Is Trump Risking War with China?, The Future of US-Russia Relations, The Nativity is a Refugee Story, “Rogue One” Review, and Britain’s Rip-Roaring Holiday Theater Tradition. Plus, sandwiched between US-Russian Relations and the Nativity as a Refugee Story, Why Mistletoe Matters, featuring yours truly.
A slightly challenging interview, as I felt I should try to bring in US mistletoes as much as I could, but also to champion European mistletoe – which is, as regular blog readers well know, the real mistletoe of mid-winter tradition. The others, though fascinating, have been conscripted into a Christmas-tide role that doesn’t quite suit them. And I felt that though the issues of England’s declining apple orchards might seem a little irrelevant to an international audience, I had to mention them anyway. Overall I think it all hung together fairly well considering.