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