Tuesday, 11 December 2018

The great mistletoe hunt

Mistletoes, belonging to the genus Viscum, are found nearly all over the world. There are about 80-90 species found in Africa, Asia, Australia and of course Europe. In North America they are replaced by the closely related genus Arceuthobium.

Our only native mistletoe is Viscum album, the generic name referring to the extreme stickiness of the seeds. Matt Moser assured me that it grows on Foxhill Farm where he apparently sowed seeds some years ago. Yesterday I went in search but Matt hadn't told be what species of tree it was growing on. Apples and Lime trees are common hosts but, although other trees sometimes bear this semi-parasite they are far less often encountered. Of course mistletoe from oak trees was traditionally associated with Druidic rituals but oaks bearing mistletoe are remarkably rare.

To cut a long story short my search was fruitless. I searched three separate areas of woodland without success and had to be content with other items of interest.

I recently looked at the subject of hedge laying but failed to mention holly.

Holly forms an impenetrable hedge. Foxhill Farm, Badby.
10 December, 2018
It is often used in gardens where it forms an excellent hedge but in the countryside it is seldom seen. It is a solid wall of a hedge, impenetrable by livestock, with the only downside being that one needs a first-aid kit on standby when laying it. On Foxhill Farm it has not been deliberately planted but where it occurs it has been incorporated into the hedgerow. Considering that it is a native plant there are remarkably few insects associated with it other than those seeking nectar from the flowers or eating the fruits. I often look on the dead leaves beneath the tree for a fungus known as the Holly Parachute, Marasmius hudsonii but have never found it.

What I did find was this small (cap about 2 cm across), rather unimpressive fungus. I believe it is Liberty Cap, Psilocybe semilanceata, and despite its appearance it is rather interesting because this common species is poisonous, hallucinogenic and obviously best avoided.

Liberty Cap growing in grass beneath a hawthorn hedge.
Foxhill Farm. 10 Decenber, 2018
The gills are of a  dark purple-brown colour. 
The gills of Liberty Cap, Psilocybe semilanceata.

Not surprisingly, given the time of the year, other fungi were in evidence, particularly on decaying wood. One example was this Yellow Brain Fungus, Tremella mesenterica, with the 'fruiting body' consisting of an irregular, gelatinous mass. Most sharp-eyed walkers in autumn woodland will come across this species.

Yellow Brain Fungus. Foxhill Farm, Badby. 10 December, 2018

The trees harboured a number of fungi, mainly resupinate species such as this one on a damp hardwood log:

Coniophora puteana? Perhaps - but perhaps not. Foxhill Farm, Badby
10 December, 2018
It may be Coniophora puteana but these fungi are very much a job for the specialist and I would be arrogant to claim any certainty for this identification. Certainly it is very common and can be a serious problem on timber in buildings.

More predictable was Candlesnuff Fungus, Xylaria hypoxylon, and as I have recently mentioned it in a blog I'll say no more.

Candlesnuff Fungus was present on rotting wood. Foxhill Farm.
10 December, 2018
Throughout this time I was peering into trees searching for mistletoe and, as I have said, I was without luck. Interestingly the hazels, which formed the coppiced understorey in some areas, were already displaying their catkins. They were fully developed too and a flick with the finger sent a cloud of pollen drifting away.

Catkins on the hazel were already releasing their pollen.
Foxhill Farm, Badby. 10 December, 2018
More surprising than the catkins was the foliage, for in several areas the leaves from summer were still clinging on, green and healthy. The areas involved were sheltered and away from the worst of the wind.

In some areas the leaves were still green and healthy. Foxhill Farm.
10 December, 2018

Hazel, when coppiced, produces an abundance of branches which are both straight and pliable. Unsurprisingly these yield well to the process of hedge laying although I suspect they are not reliably stock proof.
A typical hazel stool. Foxhill Farm, 10 December, 2018

Of similar dimensions are the bushes of Spindle, Euonymus europaea. These had lost their leaves and the striking, lipstick-pink fruit capsules were shrivelled, revealing their bright orange fruit. Many birds such as robins feed upon the fruit despite them being very poisonous - to humans at least. So poisonous is it that even breathing in the dust (it was once baked and powdered to be sprinkled in the hair to destroy head lice) could cause serious illness.

The brightly coloured fruit of the Spindle Tree is now revealed.
Foxhill Famr, Badby. 10 December, 2018
An interesting scale insect, Unaspis euonymi, has become established on Spindle in southern Britain, appearing as a crust of scruffy grey scales on the twigs in spring. I must remember to look out for them in four or five months time.

So in terms of the main object of my visit, the location of mistletoe, it was a disappointing day but I did find a number of spiders and bugs to be examined later.

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