Sunday, 30 December 2012

Week 4: Mistletoe (Viscum album)

Mistletoe was @SpeciesofUK from 23rd to 29th December 2012.

There are over 1,500 species of mistletoe. Most are found in the tropics. They are parasitic woody plants that grow on tree branches.1

Only one species of mistletoe is native to the UK. This is the European White-berried Mistletoe, 'Viscum album.'

Mistletoe 'Viscum album'
[Source: James K. Lindsey]

Mistletoe penetrates its host's tissue and draws water and nutrients from it.  In the UK, mistletoe is commonly found in broad-leaved trees, particularly apple, lime, hawthorn and poplar.2

Clumps of Mistletoe
[Source: OrangeDog]

The UK heartland for mistletoe is Somerset, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Herefordshire (of which mistletoe is the county flower).3 Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire even has an annual mistletoe festival.

Unfortunately, traditional orchards, a key habitat for mistletoe, have declined by more than 60% since 1950s (and by 90% in Devon and Kent), threatening the species.4

Identifying Mistletoe

The leaves of mistletoe are in opposite pairs, strap-shaped, leathery and are a yellowish-green in colour.

[Source: BerndH]

Mistletoe flowers are rather small and inconspicuous.  Mistletoe has separate male plants and female plants. Both sexes produce flowers, but the fruit can only be found on the female plants.

Mistletoe fruit itself is of course unmistakable! It is a white/yellow berry containing a seed within a very sticky pulp.

Mistletoe Berries
[Source: Nova]

Birds eat mistletoe berries, then pass the seeds, via their faeces, to a new branch. This is how mistletoe finds a new host. The name mistletoe, from the Anglo-Saxon word misteltan, meaning “dung twig,” refers to this process.

Mistletoe's biggest fan is the mistle thrush (hence this bird's name), which eats the fruit whole and can defend the plant agressively against competitors. Mistletoe is also popular with blackcaps, which unlike the mistle thrush separate out the seed and the flesh of the berry before eating it.

Mistle Thrush
[Source: David Friel]

The sticky coating of mistletoe seeds helps them to stay attached to the host branch throughout winter, ready to germinate in the spring. Mistletoe spends its first year reinforcing its attachment to its host. Only in its second year does it start producing leaves. When establishing itself, the mistletoe puts roots (a structure called the haustorium) into the tree branch, often causing the branch to bulge at the join.

Some species of insect are completely mistletoe dependent. These include the mistletoe weevil and the mistletoe marble moth.

Mistletoe in Mythology

In Roman mythology the Golden Bough that Aeneas has to find before he can enter the underworld is probably based on mistletoe. Mistletoe is evergreen so in winter light can glow on an otherwise leafless tree, like a 'golden bough.'

Mistletoe in Silver Birch
[Source: Andrew Dunn]

Mistletoe also features in Norse mythology, as recorded in the Prose Edda. In this story, Baldr, the most attractive of the gods, was killed by his brother Hod using a mistletoe spear. Hod, who was blind, had been tricked into killing Baldr by Loki. Mistletoe was used because it was the only plant which hadn't sworn an oath to protect Baldr. The tears of Baldr's mother Frigg became the mistletoe berries. Frigg flung the mistletoe in anger and it landed high up in the trees, where it remains today.

The Celts, and in particular their priestly class, the druids, are more associated with mistletoe than any other ancient peoples.

Mistletoe emblems frequently appear on ancient Celtic art. Lindow Man, a Celtic human sacrifice victim, consumed mistletoe before his gruesome death by garotting.

 Mike Peel (]

The most famous account describing druids and mistletoe is by the Roman writer Pliny. He memorably describes a ceremony in which druids climb an oak and cut down mistletoe under a waxing moon using a golden sickle, catching the mistletoe in a white sheet.  You can read Pliny's account here.

Druidy was revived in the 18th century onwards and mistletoe has taken a central place within it.

Kissing Under the Mistletoe

Kissing under mistletoe at Christmas originated in UK and so is most common as a tradition in English speaking countries, and particularly the USA.

Under the Mistletoe, Karl Witowski

The kissing tradition is recorded as common from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is likely to be an evolution of mistletoe as a traditional fertility symbol.5

The 'original' mistletoe (viscum album) does not grow in America so they use a different, local, species at Christmas: Phoradendron serotinum.

Some people have even associated the kissing tradition with the ancient druids because of the perceived link to fertility rites, however it is not possible to trace this lineage definitively.

Uses of Mistletoe

Mistletoe is poisonous, although not in very small quantities. It shouldn't be consumed as a food, but it is commonly used in herbal remedies.

By the 15th century, there is evidence mistletoe was being used in the UK as a remedy for a) infertility and b) nervous illnesses such as epilepsy.6

Today, the most common use of mistletoe is as a tea, taken to help relieve blood pressure and circulatory problems. However it is still used within a variety of other herbal remedies.7

Mistletoe contains progesterone, a stimulant to libido. Some have speculated that this could explain its traditional association with with fertility/kissing.8

The newest, and certainly the most controversial use for mistletoe is as a complementary therapy for cancer. You can read more about this here.

Strange but True...

Some people think that a sprig of mistletoe looks like a fairy, with a small face between two wings. What do you think?

Mistletoe Sprig
[Source: Kenraiz]


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