Tuesday 18 June
Mistletoe (Viscum album)
Mistletoe fact file
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Mistletoe is a plant with centuries of superstition and belief attached to it. There are many stories about its supposed magical properties and the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe has persisted for many years. The Victorians, in particular, had an ambivalent attitude towards it, unhappy with the plant’s pagan links but celebrating the romantic legends associated with mistletoe. Mistletoe is a parasite and relies on a host tree to provide it with a growing platform and nutrients. The leaves are evergreen and elliptical in shape, the widest part being at the end of the leaf. They are borne on repeatedly forked branches in the apex of which, in November, a sticky white berry is produced. The appearance of green mistletoe in a lifeless winter tree is, no doubt, one reason why the plant acquired a mystical significance.
- Diameter of plant cluster: up to 200cm
Mistletoe is described as dioecious, meaning it has separate male and female plants. The males flower between February and April, producing small tight clusters of blooms barely seen in the fork between two branching stems carrying four tiny petals. Females produce the familiar white berries in November and December. The berries are popular with certain birds, particularly the mistle thrush. The bird, having digested the soft flesh of the berry, voids the still-sticky seed. If this lands on a suitable branch, it may germinate and with its shoot ‘plug itself in’ to the host tree’s soft bark and begin tapping its liquid food supply. Although relying on trees for support and nourishment, mistletoes do have green leaves containing chlorophyll, and can manufacture food for themselves using the process of photosynthesis.
There are well over a thousand species of mistletoe worldwide, and one of them provides a clue as to how the family became parasitic. In Western Australia there lives a variety of mistletoe known locally as the Christmas tree because it flowers in December. It looks like an ordinary free-standing tree, but underground, its roots reach out and tap the roots of every other nearby plant, from grasses to other trees.Top
Mistletoe can be found across most of England south of a line from the Humber to the Severn Rivers, and in east Wales. It does not occur in Scotland or Ireland. In Europe, its range is largely confined to the central temperate regions as the plant requires a mild and humid climate.Top
Mistletoe occurs as a parasite on various trees and shrubs, particularly fruit trees such as apple, and on lime, poplar and oak.Top
Local but common in the UKTop
Mistletoe is grown commercially these days, but the truly wild plant is under threat from the destruction of old fruit orchards. However, there is evidence that it is appearing in new habitats, including country and urban parks, as well as in gardens where it has begun parasitising introduced specimen trees.Top
There are currently no conservation projects in place for mistletoe.Top
Find out more
For a comprehensive list of the legends and beliefs surrounding mistletoe, read ‘The Englishman’s Flora’ by Geoffrey Grigson.Top
Information supplied by English Nature.
- A group of green pigments found in photosynthetic organisms.
- An organism that derives its food from, and lives in or on, another living organism at the host’s expense.
- Metabolic process characteristic of plants in which carbon dioxide is broken down, using energy from sunlight absorbed by the green pigment chlorophyll. Organic compounds are made and oxygen is given off as a by-product.
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