Jonathan's Mistletoe Diary

December 12, 2017

Birdlime #1 – Sticky Ends

Sticky excreted mistletoe berry pulp, and seeds, at a thrush toilet in a mistletoe-laden tree

Sticky excreted mistletoe berry pulp, and seeds, at a thrush toilet in a mistletoe-laden tree

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…


In the meantime, if you want to handle (and grow more) some of those sticky berries yourself, why not buy a Mistletoe Grow-Kit from the English Mistletoe Shop?  Details here: https://englishmistletoeshop.co.uk/live/

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December 10, 2017

Radio Gloucestershire, despite the snow

kateclarkI was talking mistletoe, and mistletoe Grow-Kits, with Kate Clark from Radio Gloucestershire this morning. In the studio in Gloucester, despite the snow.

Can’t add audio direct to the blog but click the link below to go an extract of the mistletoe bit:

http://mistletoe.org.uk/audio/BBCGlos10thDec2017.mp3?_=1

Or, for the whole programme try iplayer here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p001y3bx/episodes/player

And for Grow-Kits themselves try here:  https://englishmistletoeshop.co.uk or here: http://growmistletoe.co.uk

December 18, 2016

Turdus turds – of pure mistletoe

Filed under: Biodiversity,Gardening,Mistle Thrush,Mistletoe,Orchard — Jonathan Briggs @ 7:01 pm

‘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!

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Hitting the spot – a pure mistletoe turd where all the seeds have hit the branch, albeit onto rather unsuitably thick bark. Note the green colour of the seeds, already actively photosynthetic.

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.

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A more typical mistletoe turd – with most seeds dangling helplessly in mid-air on a thin strand of sticky mucilage.

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.

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An active thrush toilet zone – lots of sticky strings of mistletoe seeds often dangling at head height!

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…

gyoYou don’t have to excrete berries to grow mistletoe!  You can just try a Grow Kit from the English Mistletoe Shop….

Grow-Your-Own Mistletoe – kits and gift cards from the English Mistletoe Shop
A Little Book About Mistletoe – printed and Kindle versions
Mistletoe Matters Consultancy – all about mistletoe in Britain
The Mistletoe Pages – even more about mistletoe
Mistletoe Surveys – seeking your input…
Mistletoe Matters on Facebook
Mistletoe Matters on Twitter

November 15, 2016

Mistletoe in The Quercy Local

Filed under: Current Affairs,Gardening,Media,Mistle Thrush,Mistletoe,social history,Travel — Jonathan Briggs @ 9:37 pm

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.

quercylocalNow 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.

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More Mistletoe Matters – links to mistletoey things to read, buy or do

Grow-Your-Own Mistletoe – kits and gift cards from the English Mistletoe Shop
A Little Book About Mistletoe – printed and Kindle versions
Mistletoe Matters Consultancy – all about mistletoe in Britain
The Mistletoe Pages – even more about mistletoe
Mistletoe Surveys – seeking your input…
Mistletoe Matters on Facebook
Mistletoe Matters on Twitter

November 4, 2015

Not-so-wild but fairly western mistletoe

Filed under: Current Affairs,Gardening,Mistle Thrush,Mistletoe,Orchard,social history,Travel — Jonathan Briggs @ 9:46 pm
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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.

Llanerchaeron - mistletoe on apple trees in the walled garden

Llanerchaeron – mistletoe on apple trees in the walled garden

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?

Llanerchaeron - detail of mistletoe on apple trees in the walled garden, with berries just beginning to show white

Llanerchaeron – detail of mistletoe on apple trees in the walled garden, with berries just beginning to show white

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!

Llanerchaeron4

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… 

February 17, 2014

Fallen mistletoe – good enough to eat!

Filed under: Biodiversity,Blogroll,Mistle Thrush,Mistletoe,Orchard,Science — Jonathan Briggs @ 5:23 pm
Mistletoe-laden Apple Tree downed in recent storms

Mistletoe-laden apple tree downed in recent storms

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.

Another mistletoe-laden Apple Tree damaged in recent storms

Another mistletoe-laden apple tree damaged in recent storms

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.

Mistletoe Haustorium - the host-parasite interface

Mistletoe Haustorium – the host-parasite interface

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.

Female flowers, just beginning to open. Those 4 tiny green petals on each is echosed on the mature berry, as the 4 concentric brown scars on each.

Female flowers, just beginning to open. Those 4 tiny green petals on each are echoed on the mature berry, as the 4 concentric brown scars on each. Click to enlarge it if you can’t see it this small.

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!

A dried mistle thrush dropping - comprising a string of mistletoe seeds held together in semi-digested berry mucilage.

A dried Mistle Thrush dropping – comprising a string of mistletoe seeds held together in semi-digested berry mucilage.

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.

The lowest-lying mistletoe, unusually accessible to grazing mammals, has all been neatly trimmed by hungry deer.

The lowest-lying mistletoe, unusually accessible to grazing mammals, has all been neatly trimmed by hungry deer.

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.
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Commercial break – want to grow mistletoe?

EMShopVisit The English Mistletoe Shop for Grow-Kits, Grow-Kit Gift Cards, and mistletoe books etc


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