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Mistletoe, holly and ivy too...

Date posted: Wednesday 23rd December 2020

Mistletoe, holly and ivy too...

Several years ago I picked mistletoe berries from the abundant bunches growing in the ornamental apple tree at the front entrance to the site. I smeared some of the berries into the cracks and crevices in my old apple tree and this year, for the first time, I’ve got berries galore! The front entrance tree had to be cut down this year as it was dying, so my mistletoe represents a continuity from this tree, loved both by plotholders for its magnificent white blossom and for the birds who used to perch there to sing a greeting and eat the fruits in the autumn.

At last week’s ‘Non-social’ Christmas event I sold bunches of mistletoe and hope that others will perpetuate the plant after a Christmas where there’ll be very little kissing under the mistletoe! What an end to the year, with us in Tier 4 and all the attendant difficulties we’ve had to face with the pandemic and now the prospect of leaving the EU without a deal.. it doesn’t bear thinking about, so I’ll focus on the delights of winter foliage!

Mistletoe is a mysterious, semi-parasitic plant: ‘…an evergreen plant with distinctive forked branches and pairs of symmetrical evergreen leaves. In winter it produces clusters of pearlescent white berries which are favourites with hungry birds such as thrushes. The plant is ‘hemiparasitic’, which means it takes some of its food from another plant. It grows on the branches of trees, pulling water and nutrients from its host, while its green leaves also photosynthesise. There are more than 900 species of mistletoe around the world. The only species native to the UK is European mistletoe (Viscum album) which has the widest host range of all its relatives.

In recent years, mistletoe’s range in the UK has begun to expand, particularly into eastern areas of England. This may be due in part to an influx of continental blackcaps from Germany that have started overwintering in Britain, with many thousands now spending their winters here. Blackcaps are migratory warblers that are becoming regular winter visitors to our bird tables. Berries, including those of mistletoe, are an essential part of their diet. On eating the white flesh of the mistletoe berry, the birds wipe their bills on twigs and branches, leaving behind the seed. If the seed is deposited on a host tree and manages to take hold, a mistletoe plant might germinate on the branch. It seems that blackcaps are more efficient at spreading mistletoe seeds than other birds, such as the mistle thrush, which also feed on the berries.’ (The Woodland Trust)

Ruth has suggested that we plant more holly that RPA plotholders can use to cut and decorate their homes once the berries start to form. We’re talking about planting a couple more crab apples in the SW wildlife area where Ruth started the Conservation Fruit Trees project to maintain and nurture the old apples and pear growing there. So more holly and more fruit trees would be a bonus for wildlife and plotholders alike, at the end of this International Year of the Tree. The newly planted ‘John Dowie’ crab apple to commemorate next year’s centenary seems to be holding it’s own.

‘The holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown’….I’m carrying on the age-old tradition of bringing into the house evergreen foliage: ‘Holly and ivy are two more evergreen plants that are closely associated with the festivities. With its shiny green leaves and red berries, the former is a common Christmas decoration and prior to Victorian times the term ‘Christmas tree’ actually referred to holly. Beware before considering it as an alternative to the now traditional fir tree though, as it’s considered bad luck to cut down a whole holly tree! Holly, ivy and other greenery were also used during winter solstice celebrations to ward off evil spirits and celebrate new growth. In pagan times, holly was thought to be the male plant and ivy the female.
One old tradition from the Midlands says that whichever plant enters the house first in winter will dictate whether the males or females rule the home for the following year – although bringing either inside before Christmas Eve is again said to be unlucky.’ (Bbowt.org.uk)

I’m going to finish this last post of the year with another shout out for the wonderful ivy, much maligned but such an invaluable source of late forage for bees, hoverflies, wasps, butterflies and other pollinators that relish it late in the autumn. And I don’t even think it needs to be justified as a plant that we should value for pollinators ie that benefits us by supporting pollinators on site; it should be valued intrinsically for itself, as we should cherish and nurture the flora, fauna – all the varieties and species of wildlife that share the allotments with us!

A very Happy Christmas to us all, and here’s to a Peaceful, Healthy and Green 2021!