Ask any average person in the UK what they know about mistletoe and the majority of respondents will probably mention the tradition of kissing under it at Christmas. A few might know something about its possible much earlier connections to Druidry – but it’s the snogging most people focus on, for obvious reasons! Like the young lady in the image to the right I’m not too keen on this aspect of the festive celebrations (she really doesn’t look very impressed with his attentions at all!), but I was curious about what else is known about this unusual evergreen seasonal plant, and I was fascinated by what I found out…
There are actually hundreds of different and often ancient species of mistletoe growing in numerous places worldwide, and new types are still being found in the wild by scientists (most recently in 2008) – but I’m going to focus on the traditional, white-berried European mistletoe (Latin name: Viscum album); the one we’re all most familiar with.
It may actually sound like it ought to be something out of a cheap horror b-movie, but mistletoe is scientifically defined as a parasitic plant. As such, it grows on the branches of various different trees, particularly favouring apple orchards. This can have a distorting effect on the growth of these trees if the mistletoe is not pruned back from time to time, preventing the tree from growing new leaves and even killing it in extreme cases.
However, and despite the slightly creepy effects of its parasitic nature, mistletoe actually plays an important role in biodiversity via its interactions with other plants and animals, which ends up creating what can only be described as the mistletoe plant’s very own ecosystem. Such complex associations between these different creatures are crucial in supporting specialist species of birds (such as the aptly named mistle thrush, which helps to distribute the plant’s seeds), insects and fungi.