Wednesday, 27 January 2016


Mistletoe is a rare plant in Northamptonshire. In fact its best-known site, in the grounds of Burghley House, is no longer in our county but is now in Cambridgeshire (and when I've a bit more time I may bore you by explaining why). A few plants exist in the Oundle area but perhaps the best colony is to be found in Kingsthorpe Recreation Ground, Northampton.

I happened to be passing that way earlier today so I took the chance to have a quick look around. There seemed to be 40-50 specimens in the lime trees there although other sources suggest there are nearer 70-80 plants.

Mistletoe in Common Lime. Kingsthorpe Recreation
Grounds, Northampton.  27 January, 2016
I can assure you that these are colour photographs, despite their black and white appearance. For much of the year the mistletoe is unnoticed among the lime foliage and winter offers the best opportunity to see them, but against a slate-grey sky their rather sickly green leaves cannot be distinguished - and they are all very high up. (Oddly enough mistletoe plants may reasonably be regarded as galls.)

Technically the plant is not a complete parasite as these leaves do produce a tiny amount of sugar via photosynthesis but in reality the mistletoe is completely reliant on its host. In our area that host is overwhelmingly Common Lime, Tilia x europaea, but I know of a False Acacia, Robinia pseudoacacia, in the Weston Favell area of the town which also bears a mistletoe plant. It seems a reasonable assumption that all these plants grew from chance berries used at Christmas. Apples and poplars are also frequent hosts in other parts of southern England.

Why do we kiss under mistletoe? Anyone seeing the sticky grey-white juice oozing from a berry will see why it was regarded as a fertility symbol but we are not only talking here about human fertility. As the photographs show, the plants form a roughly spherical mass of branches. Centuries ago one of these spheres was, at the appropriate time of the year, mixed with some hawthorn twigs and this bundle was then set on fire. While still burning this would be carried across twelve furrows of a ploughed field and, if the flames died before the furrows were crossed, this was a bad omen for the next year's crops.

In my youth Mistletoe, Viscum album, was regarded as a member of the Loranthaceae Family but is now included in the Sandalwood Family, Santalaceae. Recently a second species has been found growing in Britain. This is Loranthus europaeus but, to be honest, it was found growing on a shrub at Kew Gardens - and no-one seems to know how it got there!

Back to our true native species: the berries, looking like pearls, have occasionally been eaten, usually by children. These berries contain some nasty toxic alkaloids but fortunately recent cases have only involved the consumption of 4-5 berries; more could have been dangerous.

Well, I've not mentioned the Mistle Thrush, Turdus viscivorus, or the Mistletoe Marble Moth, Celypha woodiana, so I've been very restrained. I'll sign off before the urge to write about the several bugs which also live on this extraordinary plant, becomes unbearable. 

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