December 2013 - Mistletoe

Christmas is nearly here and it is time for sprigs of mistletoe to adorn our houses symbolising the coming of new life. As its name might suggest this plant is linked with the mistle thrush which is extremely fond of eating the white berries, going on to discard the sticky seeds by wiping them from its bill onto convenient branches, thus ensuring distribution of the seeds and continuation of the plant. Mistle thrushes are not the only distributors of the seeds; song thrushes, fieldfares, redwings and blackbirds also like a mistletoe berry feast.

Mistletoe is not common in Norfolk but is scattered throughout the county; it is thought to be most frequently found south of Norwich. In winter the plant is at its most obvious and is seen as a rounded clump of greenish-yellow leaves among the bare branches of a tree which has lost its leaves. Records show that most mistletoe plants in Norfolk grow on lime trees, although there have also been recordings of the plants growing on poplar, apple, almond, hawthorn, field maple and willow. Since 1866, there have been no recordings of the plant growing on ash or oak (Norfolk Wildlife Trust). Mistletoe has both male and female plants, and you need both in the vicinity to get the white, semi-transparent berries that develop on the female plant between December and February. The male plant produces small greenish flowers from February for production of pollen to fertilise the female plant flowers.  During the months of April to June both plants grow actively taking some of their nutrients and water from the host tree, thus making mistletoe a partial parasite. It is not totally parasitic on the host plant as its green leaves are able to photosynthesise, thus providing some of its own nutrients.

If you want to grow your own mistletoe, gather berries in February and extract the seed along with some sticky juice. Smear these along young branches of an apple tree.

Mistletoe berries are not for human consumption and indeed can be poisonous if consumed in large quantities due to complex proteins known as 'lectins.' However, mistletoe has also been used as a medicinal plant throughout history. By the 18th century these claims were beginning to be backed-up (to some extent) by research, including a famous study by Sir John Colbatch in 1720, investigating mistletoe’s effects on epilepsy. At that time he wrote:

that there must be something extraordinary about that uncommon beautiful plant, that the Almighty had designed it for further and more noble uses than barely to feed thrushes or to be hung up superstitiously

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