Do you still embrace the custom of kissing under the Mistletoe at Christmas time? Mistletoe is one of Britain’s best-known plants but it’s becoming increasingly rare. As well as being steeped in tradition and folklore, Mistletoe provides an important winter food source for birds like the Mistle Thrush.
Mistletoe is more easily seen during the winter months when great tangles of its evergreen leaves hang from the trees’ bare branches. It’s a hemi-parasite, meaning it relies on a host tree to supply it with water and minerals, but can still produce its own energy through photosynthesis. Mistletoe grows on a variety of trees including lime, hawthorn and poplar but apple trees are by far its favourite host.
Most of the Mistletoe we buy for Christmas comes from traditional orchards in the cider-producing counties of Somerset, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire. Sadly these orchards are rapidly disappearing, along with our knowledge of mistletoe management and harvesting techniques. If this loss continues we could lose one of our most legendary plants, as well as a wealth of other wildlife associated with traditional orchards.
Mistletoe provides a miniature ecosystem for specialist insects, fungi and birds, especially the Mistle Thrush and overwintering Blackcaps. The unusual, ice-white berries – although toxic to humans – are a valuable winter food source and any birds that eat them help to spread Mistletoe seeds to other trees, either through their droppings or by wiping their sticky beaks clean on branches, gluing the seeds in place.
Charlotte Owen, Sussex Wildlife Trust’s WildCall Officer, says ‘A bunch of mistletoe is one of our best-loved Christmas traditions and a firm favourite with our wildlife, too. If you’re buying mistletoe this year, try to ensure you buy British from a sustainably-managed source, or you could even try growing your own. The Christmas berries don’t usually germinate but ripe berries harvested in March or April can be rubbed onto the underside of a suitable host branch to kick-start a new mistletoe plant.
‘We’re always keen to receive records of mistletoe growing in Sussex, so if you spot any this winter please make a note of where and when you saw it, and if possible what it was growing on.’ You can report sightings to Charlotte by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or phone 01273 494 777.