Kissing under the Mistletoe

Illustrative photo of mistletoe-clad trees Mistletoe-clad trees in Ampthill Park. © Bob Cornes

Mistletoe is a fascinating parasitic plant with a wealth of folklore, history and legend attached to it. It is also an easily visible, obvious and recordable plant and with these facts in mind the BNHS is planning to run a mistletoe survey for 2006 as part of the Society’s 60th Anniversary celebrations.

I, Steve Halton, will be running the survey and we hope to involve as many BNHS members, local press, radio and members of the public as possible so we can map the distribution of mistletoe in Bedfordshire and maybe carry out follow-up surveys in the future to establish how the population is faring.

Mistletoe is actually one of our most easily recognized but least understood plant. In Britain we have just one species of mistletoe Viscum album and the latin name refers to the berries which are white (album) and contain a very sticky, viscous fluid (Viscum). The species which grows in Britain is actually a subspecies platyspermum, although other subspecies occur throughout the rest of Europe.

Illustrative photo of a ball of mistletoe A dense ball of Mistletoe. © John Pitts
The British distribution is unusual with the best populations centred in the south and west midlands and the core area appears to be around Herefordshire where a mistletoe (and holly) fair is held every December at Tenbury Wells. See Flora Britannica for further details. In Bedfordshire the plant seems particularly common on the Greensand around Silsoe and Ampthill with smaller populations elsewhere in the north and south.

The species occurs as a parasite on a range of host trees and, currently, approximately 200 species of host have been identified with apple, poplar and lime being the most common. The British mistletoe is a harmless parasite on the branches of trees and shrubs from where it takes water and a mineral nutrient supply. Technically, mistletoe is a hemi-parasite as it also has green leaves and can photosynthesise. Some foreign species of mistletoe can be very destructive to their hosts. The berries are often eaten by birds (particularly thrushes) and the seeds transferred to new host via the bird defecating or wiping its bill on a branch to remove the sticky residue.

Close-up photo of mistletoe to aid identification Close-up of Mistletoe. © Keith Balmer
The plant is rich in tradition and folklore including; druids and golden sickles, fertility, kissing (related to fertility), a symbol of the continuing ‘life-force’ and vitality/fertility of trees and the plant during the winter (the plant appears to grow in the air with no need of soil or water). The forked, paired branches, paired leaves and berries full of the white sticky fluid also hint at sexual imagery.

The survey will aim to record the distribution of mistletoe in Bedfordshire in 2006, we also hope to record which species of host tree or shrub the mistletoe is growing on, numbers on each tree, approximate size of the ball and any associated folklore. Drawings, painting and photographs would be welcome too!

For further information or to send information, contact Steve Halton. (Details in box at top right of page)

Update 25th April 2006:

As the trees burst into leaf the mistletoe clumps are beginning to disappear and the rustling of mistletoe leaves fades into a chorus of electronic beeps as the Midwife Toad survey takes over, this seems an opportune moment to say three things to everyone:

  1. This is a last reminder to anyone who has not sent in mistletoe records to me to please do so, in whatever format is easiest for you.
  2. If anyone has any digital pictures of Bedfordshire mistletoe, either in close-up, general views or as as part of a wider landscape context, then please send them to me via email. Some of these I can then use in the written report.
  3. Lastly and most importantly, can I say a big thank you to everyone who has contributed to the survey over the last few months; the response has been fantastic and the survey seems to have captured the imagination of a whole range of people from BNHS members to the general public. The clumps, being so obvious, make ideal survey material for people travelling around the county and I now have a thick file of records which will provide a snapshot of mistletoe distribution and some ecological information for the species in Bedfordshire in 2006.

It's good to see the BNHS engaging with its members and the wider public with a series of surveys of wildlife across the county - long may it continue.

Many thanks and best wishes.

Steve Halton

Mistletoe Survey Coordinator