(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?