Skip navigation

Wildlife Garden blog

3 Posts tagged with the mistletoe tag
0

At this time of year deciduous trees can look their most beautiful silhouetted against the sky, revealing their true form and structure. Some shapes are obscured in a wrapping of ivy (Hedera helix), its lush, dark green growth providing a source of food and habitat for a variety of wildlife, as well as a traditional Christmas decoration in our homes.

 

1. WildlifeGarden_23122014-017.jpg
Ivy covering a tree stump © Jonathan Jackson.


Although ivy is no parasite it can sometimes cause damage as it climbs and clings to trees and hedges competing for plant nutrients in the soil, and its thick evergreen leaves, competing for light. Occasionally, if left unchecked, the sheer expanse of an ivy wrapping will act like a sail and in winter strong winds will cause the host tree and ivy stems to snap and capsize.


We restrain ivy growth on our trees on our trees in the wildlife garden by cutting it back to just below the crown before it competes for light in the tree canopy. We also keep it in check on the ground, preventing it covering large areas of ground where it would restrict the growth of other woodland plants such as primroses (Primula vulgaris) and lesser celandine (Ficaria verna).

2. WildlifeGarden_23122014-022.jpg

Ivy growth on the lime tree in the centre of the Wildlife Garden © Jonathan Jackson.

 

3. WildlifeGarden_23122014-058.jpg

Ivy starting to spread along the ground © Jonathan Jackson.


But no wildlife garden is complete without a wealth of ivy – albeit restrained.


Just two months ago, we watched our bees (Apis melifera) entering the bee tree laden with pollen from ivy. On a sunny autumn day there’s a constant humming from ivy flowers as bees and wasps congregate around the late autumn nectar. And during evenings a variety of moth species silently feed on ivy’s nectar-rich flowers

 

3. Bees on ivy flowersIMG_5672.jpg.
Bees nectaring on ivy flowers.


But both holly and ivy are Important in the life cycle of the holly blue butterfly (Celastrina argiolus). The female lays her eggs on ivy in autumn in time for the larvae to feed on developing flower buds – the chrysalis overwinters and the adult emerges in spring.The spring adult lays eggs beneath the  flower buds of holly (Ilex aquifolium).

 

4. Holly Blue f on Bluebell_Tim Melling 1.jpg

Holly blue (Celastrina argiolus) on bluebell © Tim Melling, Butterfly Conservation.


Ivy leaves are a food source for the larvae of several moth species, notably the Swallow-tailed moth (Ourapteryx sambucaria)

 

5. Swallow-tailed Moth_Robert Thompson.jpg

Swallow-tailed moth (Ourapteryx sambucaria) on ivy © Robert Thompson, Butterfly Conservation


Ivy-clad trees and other structures provide thick cover and camouflage for nesting birds as well as hibernating insects – I inadvertently disturbed four common plume moths (Emmelina monodactyla) last week from the base of an ivy-clad fence.

 

Berries provide nest cover and food for birds as we have written about in a previous blog

 

7. blackbird and ivy berriesWLG_06032014-067.jpg

Blackbird feeding off ripe ivy berries in March © Jonathan Jackson.

 

But what of ivy’s seasonal associations and other uses? Roy Vickery tells us more:

 

Although it’s associated with Christmas, at least in urban areas ivy is not used a great deal as a Christmas decoration. Like holly it would remain looking fresh throughout the festive season before the widespread installation of central heating, now when homes are warmer and drier its leaves soon lose their sheen and then the twigs lose their leaves. Sometimes stretched crepe paper, usually red, was wrapped around fruiting ivy to make ornamental ‘roses’.

 

 

6, WildlifeGarden_23122014-052.jpg

Fruiting ivy – still green this week and unpalatable to birds © Jonathan Jackson.


However, there are records from places as far apart as Morayshire and Essex that ivy was considered to be unlucky and should not be brought indoors. Alternatively, as reported from Staffordshire in 1983: ‘Holly and ivy must not be taken in house until Christmas Eve and must be removed by January 6th.’


Presumably an exception was made on washdays when water in which ivy leaves had been boiled was used to clean the blue serge fabric from which the uniforms of railway men, postmen, and others was made. In County Derry: ‘With an old clothes brush take your husband’s serge suit and proceed to brush in the liquid, especially [into] the lapel and neck and cuffs.  Then take a clean cloth and iron it all over. It’s like new.’

 

 

9. WildlifeGarden_23122014-034.jpg
Ivy beginning its ascent up a London plane tree (Platanus x hispanica) in the Wildlife Garden

                                         © Jonathan Jackson.

 

And ivy leaves, either fresh, boiled or seeped in vinegar, tied on to corns and left on for about three days, will successfully remove the corn and its root so that it doesn’t return. Other medical uses included the treatment of burns in County Cork and eczema in Derbyshire.


Farmers would tempt sick sheep by offering them ivy: ‘If they did not eat ivy, they were going to die.’


Although it widely assumed that ivy is poisonous, Brian Bonnard in his Channel Island Plant Lore (1993) record that during the German occupation of the Islands in 1940-5 ‘ivy berries were boiled and eaten’. We do not recommend this.


Thank you Roy. You can read more about the uses of ivy and much more on Plant-lore Archive.

 

With seasonal evergreens in mind, you may like to see the progress of our mistletoe (Viscum album), planted in 2009 by Jonathan Briggs and featured in our wildlife garden blog two years ago. The plant has grown considerably in 2 years and .......

 

10. Mistletoe WildlifeGarden_27112014-034.jpg

Five and a half years after planting, our mistletoe has produced berries for the first time…

© Jonathan Jackson.

 


And finally, garden sightings this week also included…

 

13.photo fox 23_12_14.jpg

A healthy young fox captured on camera today © Daniel Osborne.

 

Merry Christmas and Happy new Year!

0

Roy Vickery, botanist and Museum Scientific Associate and longtime ‘friend’ of the Wildlife Garden, has been collecting plant stories for many years. Roy tells us more about mistletoe myths:

 

“Pliny the Elder in the first century A.D. described druids in France cutting mistletoe from oak trees in a ritual which involved golden sickles, dressing in white cloaks, slaughtering white bulls.  Because of this, mistletoe was considered to be a pagan plant and banned from churches.”

 

4 LowRes_Mistletoe_close-up_JBRIGGScopyright+(Custom).jpgThe distinctive white berries of mistletoe (Viscum album)

 

But what is the origin of our seasonal fascination for this plant?

 

“Mistletoe was associated with Christmas since the mid-17th Century. By the 19th Century this association was well established, and people who had mistletoe-bearing trees on their land were bothered by people who raided them. In 1876 it was recorded that one Lincolnshire landowner hired 14 'watchers' each year to protect the mistletoe in her park.

 

“Kissing under the mistletoe seems to be a tradition which originated in the British Isles, but it does not appear to be an ancient one. It seems that it developed from the kissing bough which decorated homes in medieval times. This consisted of a bunch of evergreens, or a number of intersecting hoops covered in evergreens, which was hung from the ceiling, and under which people kissed. At sometime, probably in the late 18th or early 19th Century, mistletoe became an important component of these boughs, and eventually, by the mid-19th Century, the other greenery seems to have become of secondary importance, with the mistletoe becoming essential. Certainly, as numerous illustrations show, the association of kissing and mistletoe was well established by Victorian times.

 

“The situation is complicated by the fact that in some areas there were decorations known as 'mistletoe boughs' which appear to be identical to the kissing boughs and contained no mistletoe.

 

“It is sometimes said that a berry should be removed every time anyone kisses under the mistletoe.

 

“There are various beliefs about what should be done with mistletoe once Christmas has passed. In some areas some was kept indoors throughout the year to ensure happiness, love, food and money throughout the year. In other places, Christmas mistletoe was burnt under the pancake pan on Shrove Tuesday.

 

“Mistletoe doesn't seem to have been much used in folk medicine. The only remedy which I've collected is from Somerset, where it was remembered that a vile-tasting tea, made from mistletoe which grew on hawthorn, was used to treat measles. Other people have collected information on mistletoe being used to treat hysteria in Herefordshire and prevent strokes in Essex.”

 

5 mtoe_poplars_roadside_v2_jbriggs+(Custom).jpgMistletoe on poplars bordering a road (Jonathan Briggs)

 

In the meantime we are watching out for the mistletoe plant dispersers. Mistle thrush is a rare visitor to the Wildlife Garden but the blackcap is now more commonly seen - and has been observed in the garden throughout 2012.

 

Posted on behalf of Caroline who is currently on annual leave.

0

Since the beginning of the month great bunches of mistletoe (Viscum album) have been on sale in green grocers throughout the country and here - close to the Museum in South Kensington - is no exception.

 

DSC_5559 - 1 (Custom).JPG

James McKay presents one of his mistletoe bunches from his shop in South Kensington

 

In common with many others, I’ve always been fascinated by this curious plant and was pleased to find it growing on lime trees across the fields from where I once lived in Kent. Until then I had only seen mistletoe growing in northern France - again, probably on lime trees.


mtoe_limes_chyard_shurdington_v2_jbriggs (Custom) (Custom).JPG

Mistletoe (the 'globes' of green among the branches) growing on Lime. Image: Jonathan Briggs


Mistletoe is an evergreen, semi-parasitic plant absorbing water and nutrients from host trees. It is spread by several bird species, including of course the mistle thrush.  Mistle thrushes swallow the whole berry and the sticky seeds pass through their gut. The excreted seeds, retaining their stickiness, fall and often stick to branches of the host tree where the seeds may germinate.

 

mistle-thrush-creative-commons-BY-NC-SA-2-jsutcliffe.jpgMistle thrush. Image: jsutcliffe/Flickr

Creative Commons licence BY-NC-SA 2.0

 

Blackcaps are also rather partial to mistletoe but first separate the seed from the white flesh, leaving the viscous seed on the host branch, before eating the fruit. Mistletoe has a particular affinity for apple, lime, hawthorn and

poplar in relatively open habitats, such as in orchards, parks and gardens.

 

black-cap-edwyn-anderton-creative-commons-by-nc-sa-2.jpgMale blackcap. Image: Edwyn Anderton/Flickr

Creative Commons licence BY-NC-SA 2.0

 

Apart from the local green grocer, there is no nearby source of these white berries for birds to spread. My own attempts at propagating mistletoe seeds on our apple trees in the Wildlife Garden failed - so when Jonathan Briggs of Mistletoe Matters offered to introduce mistletoe to some of our trees, we welcomed the suggestion.

 

Jonathan planted seeds on branches of two apple trees, an old ornamental hawthorn and willow in April 2009. The seeds successfully germinated on several trees and managed to survive on the apple and willow.

 

Jonathan Briggs explains his reasons for introducing mistletoe to the garden:

 

“The mistletoe planting in the Museum’s Wildlife garden was part of a programme of mistletoe plantings in selected London locations linked to the original Greater London Biodiversity Action Plan. Mistletoe was included in that on the basis of its rarity (in the London area), ease of monitoring and cultural significance. 

 

“Other planting sites included Kew, Chelsea Physic Garden, Buckingham Palace Garden and Down House (Darwin's place - he admired mistletoe's adaptations). Key existing populations in the London area are largely around Hampton Court where it has been recorded for over 200 years on the famous limes, and in the opposite corner of London in Enfield where there is much in the Middleton House/Forty Hall area.

 

“Since the London project there has been increasing evidence that mistletoe may be becoming more common anyway in eastern counties - perhaps due to climate change, perhaps due to increased spread from more over-wintering blackcaps or perhaps a combination of both. Spread from tree to tree is increasing around Hampton Court and in Essex.

 

“At the same time, over in the SW Midlands which are better suited to mistletoe climatically, there is continuing loss, in biomass terms, of mistletoe in old apple orchards - which are in decline. These orchards are one of its favourite habitats, so the loss of the orchards inevitably leads to less mistletoe. It does not, however, mean mistletoe is threatened - it is still thriving in other habitats, so it is only quantity that is reducing.

 

“Actually, in some orchards, mistletoe quantity is increasing, as the trees have become unmanaged and the mistletoe allowed to overgrow them. This is only temporary however as the trees involved are mostly old, and the overgrowth of mistletoe will accelerate their death - so this 'glut' in some orchards will be gone in a few years. A survey, the 'Mistletoe League' is collecting information on attitudes to mistletoe management in fruit trees (in both orchards and gardens) - do take part if you have mistletoe on fruit trees, all information is useful.

 

“If you want to try growing your own there are detailed instructions on the Mistletoe Pages website. Mistletoe is a parasite and will affect the branch it is growing on - but it won't harm the whole tree unless allowed to take over. Some pruning every winter will prevent that happening!”

 

... it will be sometime before our delicate mistletoe threatens its host trees:

 

Wildlife Garden-14112012-mistletoe-035 (Custom).JPG

A healthy young plant on apple (Malus domestica) ‘Brownlees Russet’ in the Museum’s Wildlife Garden. Image: Jonathan Jackson

 

These fresh green and healthy-looking plants appear new and shiny on the otherwise bare and wintry branches and perhaps this is why mistletoe was thought to symbolise new life at the winter solstice - just one of many beliefs associated with this enigmatic plant.