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WILDLIFE OF NORTHERN ENGLAND

THE Mistletoe--Viscum album

Mistletoe belongs to the Order Santalales, and the Family Santalaceae and placed in the genus Viscum. The common or European  mistletoe is Viscum album which is the only species in Britain and much of Europe.

This hemi-parastic plant has poisonous berries which can cause acute gastrointestinal problems which include stomach pains and diarrhoea, along with a slow pulse rate. However, mistletoe is used in herbal medicine { see Medicinal uses below}

Mistletoe has long been associated with orchards but it also lives on other species of trees other than apple. In the 1990s a national survey was set up by the BSBI and Plantlife to re-assess its UK distribution and to ascertain if the loss of orchards were affecting mistletoe populations.

The survey which originally was expected to run for 2-3 winters, proved  such a popular project to volunteers and members of the public sending in data that the Survey ran for over five years. The summary of the survey stated that the loss of orchards had led to some local declines in mistletoe, however, overall there seems to have been an increase in the distribution of mistletoe with many records {not previously taken into account} from gardens and parks.

The survey also revealed that the great majority of mistletoe grew on just a few species of trees although it did occur on many more.  The core area for mistletoe in Britain covers much of Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Gwent {Wales} , but it may be found locally almost anywhere in England and Wales, although in many areas it is scarce and it appears on many Local Biodiversity Action Plans {BAPs}.

It appears on lime, hawthorn, ash, poplar, maple , willow, crab apple,and false acacia, but the majority is still found on apple trees, which seems to be its favoured host, though it rarely grows on pear. It is thought that the milder winters over the last decade or so has seen many more over wintering black caps,Sylvia atricapilla, and these birds along with members of the thrush family, and in particular the mistle thrush , has helped with the distribution of seeds. The sticky substance within the berry protecting the seed sticks to the bill of birds. When the bird wipes its beak on the twigs and branches of tree the seed becomes lodged in the bark. 

Mistletoe berry after the birds have attempted to take the seed.

Photograph courtesy of Fir0002 Creative commons attribution

Description of the Mistletoe

The mistletoe is an evergreen parasitic plant, growing on the branches of trees, where it forms a pendulent masses which vary in size from 2-5 feet in diameter. Once a seed comes into contact with the bark , within days it will form roots, which are like threads, which eventually pierce the bark. The root over time becomes woody.

The stem of the mistletoe is yellowish and somewhat smooth and produces many forks and bone like joints.The foliage is tongue shaped, broader towards the end each are 1-3 inches long  {2.5-7.5 cm} , thick and somewhat leathery, of a dull yellowish-green colour, and arranged in pairs, borne on short stalks.

The tiny inconspicuous flowers are in close clusters of three, located in the forks of branches. The flowers are either male or female, the two genders growing on different plants. The flowers tend to open in May . These are succeeded by the fruits, which when ripe become the familiar berries much in demand at Christmas time.


Mistletoe berries much in demand at Christmas.

Photograph courtesy of Kxjan CC BY-SA 3.0 License.

The name mistletoe derives from the Anglo-saxon mistletan meaning birdlime twig, mistle being an old Dutch word for birdlime { birdlime is a sticky substance made from Mistletoe [and other plants such as holly] which was once smeared on branches to catch small birds} it alludes to the one time use of mistletoe in the production of birdlime.

The genus name Viscum is Latin and signifies sticky. The specific name album comes from the Latin alba and means white alluding to the colour of the berries.

" In summer we seldom notice that mistletoe is concealed within the foliage of the tree it inhabits, not until autumn has stripped all away, and winter has rendered the woods transparent, andthe splendours of the ivy and holly are disclosed do we discover its presence. Then how beautiful the contrast of its innumerable green quills and glistening pearls, with dark brown armour around and below-all of those stalwart foresters that trees open to view.

" Then too, how beautiful is suggested to us the value and excellence of deciduous things, for all mantles to remain forever, how much should we remain concious of "

The above text is from a book " THE TREES OF OLD ENGLAND"

Mistletoe has long been steeped in tradition and folklore for centuries.The druids held it in great esteem. they would seek it out, and , if, mistletoe was found on oak { which the Druids claim was a good source of mistle toe} it was especially sacred; the ritual of cutting the plant was carried out with great ceremony. The plant was cut at a particular age of the moon at the beginning of the year. it was also cut with a golden knife.

However, there is some doubt whether the mistletoe the Druids collected at that time was Viscum album for it is very rarely found on oak, and certainly not in the quanities that the Druids harvested. Thus, the mistletoe found at that time was possibly another species which is now not found in Britain, but this is speculation.

The possessor of mistletoe was, according to legend, protected from evil. Mistletoe was used as a symbol of fertility and this age old custom still echoes to the present day when couples hold mistletoe above their heads before kissing.

Mistletoe on silver birch

Photograph courtesy of Andrew Dunn creative commons attribution CC BY-SA 3.0 License.

Mistletoe and its medicinal uses.

HISTORICAL INFORMATION------------

In days gone by mistletoe was considered to be a nervine, antispasmodic, tonic and narcotic.

It was gainfully employed against epilepsy when used in the correct dosage and in the right form. However, too high a dosage wouldhave a converse effect and make epilepsy more frequent and all the more distressing.

Culpeper, in his Complete Herbal ( 1600s)  states--"Tragus saith, that the fresh wood of many mistletoe bruised, and the juice drawn forth and dropped in the ears that hath imposthumes in them doth help to ease them within a few days"

The Family Herbal published in the 1800s states--" The leaves of mistletoe dried and powdered are a famous remedy for the falling sickness {epilepsy}; they are good in all nervous disoreders, and have been known to perform great cures taken for a continuous time."

MODERN DAY USES-----

Modern day uses include the treatment for high blodd pressure, arthritis and to support certain cancer therapies. The berries are poisonous and should never be used. There are records of children having convulsions through eating the berries. Mistletoe contains high levels of zinc which helps to boost the immune system.  It is the stems and leaves that are used to treat headaches and migraine, especially those that are caused by tense neck muscles. It is recommended that the dry herb is used in cold water infusions for high blood pressure and nervous tension.

A tincture can be produced for headache { taken in very small doses} .

It is NOT recommended for home made preparations  and should be used under the guidance of a medical herbalist. { see wild herb advise}.

The mistlethrush helps to distribute mistletoe it is particularly fond of the berries from which it takes its common name.

Photograph by Dal

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Holly Tree

Alder. 

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Recognizing winter trees

 

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