Posted: Friday 16th December 2016 by Nature Notes
© Zsuzsanna Bird
As with many Christmas traditions, kissing under the mistletoe comes from Victorian times, when a boy could win a kiss from a girl for each mistletoe berry he picked.
The idea probably originated in a Norse legend in which the goddess Frigga declared mistletoe a symbol of love. Perhaps this was because it appears to grow magically from thin air.
In fact, mistletoe is a hemiparasite, which gets most of its food through adapted roots from its host tree – usually apple, lime, ash or hawthorn – as well as being photosynthetic. Its berries are loved by birds such as the mistle thrush, blackcap, redwing and fieldfare, which wipe their bills on the tree to help remove the sticky remnants, accidentally spreading the seeds. Contrary to popular belief, mistletoe will not kill its host, but can weaken the branches it sits on.
Once considered a pest, mistletoe has been recognised as an ecological keystone species – one that has a disproportionately pervasive influence over its community. For example, a study of mistletoe in junipers concluded that juniper berries tend to proliferate where mistletoe is present, as the mistletoe attracts berry-eating birds which also eat juniper berries. Areas with greater mistletoe density tend to support greater animal diversity.
As traditional orchards have declined, mistletoe has become rarer. Many Wildlife Trusts are acting to reverse this trend and you can help too by growing it in your own garden.
Make sure you wash your hands after touching the berries, as they are toxic to humans.
Finally, if you’re planning on puckering up under the mistletoe this Christmas, please buy from sustainable sources.
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