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Wildlife Garden blog

2 Posts tagged with the plant_lore tag
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The berry season has been spectacular this year, and continues, in green (ivy), in black (tutsan and privet), and more seasonally, in many shades of red and orange. Clusters of red fruit remain on our rowan trees and it’s easy to spot feeding birds within the bare branches. This morning I watched 2 plump mistle thrushes gorge themselves while blackbirds fed on a neighbouring tree - so no surprise that we have so many rowan seedlings throughout the garden.

 

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A morning feast - mistle thrush and blackbird on neighbouring rowans.

 

Butcher's-broom (Ruscus aculeatus) brightens dark corners of woodland together with the maligned stinking iris (Iris foetidissima) - it doesn't smell bad!.

 

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Butcher's-broom (Ruscus aculeatus).

Derek Adams

 

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Stinking Iris (Iris foetidissima).
Derek Adams

 

Bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara) dangles its ripe red berries over fences and through hedges where a few bruised rose-hips and the occasional pink of an unripe blackberry can also be found. But it is the holly (Ilex aquifolium) that steals the show; its scarlet berries looking luscious amongst the dark shiny leaves.

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A holly tree (Ilex aquifolium) in the Wildlife Garden.

Jonathan Jackson

 

Holly is a rich source of food for birds and crucially will be available when most other berries have been exhausted. Blackbird, mistle thrush and redwing - all members of the family Turdidae (the thrushes) - will compete with woodpigeon and squirrels for the fruit. Our Christmas card icon, the robin, very occasionally feeds on these berries too.

 

Holly berries are resistant to the extreme cold and stay well preserved for several months, but another reason for their longevity is the mistle thrush.  Barbara and John Snow who spent years studying the ecological interaction between birds and berries*, observed that some holly trees are fiercely defended by mistle thrush.

 

By preventing other birds from feeding on the fruit, mistle thrushes can conserve the berries as a long-term food supply which may last all winter through to spring. And as they suggest, this conservation of hollies by mistle thrushes is one of the reasons there are always holly berries around on some trees for our festive decorations. 


Roy Vickery takes up the seasonal story of holly:

“Although it seems that in earlier times a variety of evergreens were used in Christmas decorations, for many years red-berried holly was the most important one. Indeed, in some parts of  England it was known simply as ‘Christmas’. Before computer-generated posters became common, holly leaves, which even artists with few skills could draw, inevitably adorned notices announcing Christmas events.

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Hedge holly in the Wildlife Garden.

Jonathan Jackson

 

Although growing holly trees were usually considered to be protective, and therefore should not be cut down, it was sometimes considered unlucky to bring branches of it indoors before Christmas Eve. There are even occasional records of holly being considered inauspicious during the Christmas period.

 

However, most people tried to get sprigs of holly, with its bright red berries and dark green glossy leaves, to decorate their homes. Thus the gathering of holly provided a useful supplementary income for farmers who had trees growing on their land, and gypsies who gathered it wherever they could. In 1980 it was estimated that holly sold at Christmas came equally from these two sources. In some areas, notably Cornwall, Christmas trees were traditionally hollies rather than the more usual conifer trees.

 

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More holly in our garden.

Jonathan Jackson

 

In recent years holly seems to have become much less popular, at least in London. Little was available for sale in 2012, although it appears to have made something of a come-back in 2013. Presumably holly, which tends to soon dry up and lose its leaves in warm conditions is unsuited for display in centrally heated homes, although holly wreaths, usually of natural leaves and wired-on artificial berries, are still commonly produced for decorating graves and attaching to front doors.

 

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Christmas wreath on the door of the Wildlife Garden shed, made by Larissa from willow stems, yew, juniper and holly - nothing artificial here!

 

To a certain extent more easily manageable poinsettias and stems of the deciduous North American holly, known as winterberry (Ilex verticillata), have replaced the hard to arrange holly twigs which were once sought in British hedgerows.

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Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) on sale this weekend in a market in Kent.

 

In the past, outside the Christmas season, chilblains were cured by beating with holly twigs until they bled, branches were pulled down chimneys to clear them of soot, bird-lime used for trapping small birds was extracted from its bark, and an abundance of its berries were believed to foretell a severe winter.”

 

Partly down to the mistle thrush?

 

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Winter holly in the Wildlife Garden in 2003.

Derek Adams

 

* Snow, B and J. 1988. Birds and Berries. T & AD Poyser

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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.

 

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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.


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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:

 

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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.