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Read in: EnglishCymraeg
Did you know that Mistletoe, like a number of our native plant species, is actually a parasite?
Discover this Christmas classic’s unusual way of surviving, alongside a host of other fascinating parasitic plants, in this in-depth read from Robbie Blackhall-Miles and Lizzie Wilberforce.
Thanks to its association with Christmas, and its appearance on cards and decorations, Mistletoe is probably one of our most recognised native species. This association also means that the ‘kissing plant’ is also harvested in huge volumes each year for seasonal decorations. That tradition probably derives from a long history of use in ritual, which may have started with Celtic druids.
It’s seen variously as a symbol of fertility, love, and peace across European cultures. However, the kissing tradition itself appears to have developed more recently, perhaps in the 18th century.
But what of the plant in the wild? Although it has a widespread distribution in the UK, it is quite rare in many areas. Its greatest abundance is strongly clustered around the Welsh-English border areas.
In fact, it’s also the county flower of Herefordshire, where you can find our Joan’s Hill Farm Nature Reserve. Here, it is strongly associated with the area’s fruit orchards, although it grows on a wide range of deciduous trees such as poplars and limes as well as orchard species.
Mistletoe is an ‘obligate hemi-parasite’ of the trees on which it grows: that is, it doesn’t just grow on trees as a physical host. It actually can’t survive without the biological symbiosis it has with the host tree, although it does also photosynthesise. So how does that relationship work?
Mistletoe produces seeds in white berries – itself unusual, being our only native plant with truly white berries. The seeds are spread through the landscape by birds, such as thrushes (via their droppings) and Blackcaps (which move seeds mechanically on their bodies).
Both routes allow seeds to stick to new tree hosts, where if the location is suitable, they germinate. The young emerging seedlings are photosynthetic, and so at this early stage they are not dependent on the tree.
As the seedlings grow, some shoots penetrate the bark of the tree and connect with the tissue beneath- the beginnings of the parasitic relationship. In the plant’s first year, its connections with the tree’s tissues already provide it with water and crucial mineral nutrients.
It’s only then, over the following few years, that the plant very slowly begins to grow. Mistletoe is a long-lived perennial.
Parasitism is a form of symbiosis where one partner benefits at the expense of the other. Mistletoe thrives on account of the tree, but the reverse is not true. If a tree has a lot of Mistletoe, it can eventually affect the tree quite severely, impeding growth, and for example, making it more susceptible to drought as a result of water loss.
Parasitism has evolved multiple different times across the plant world. The largest flower in the world, Rafflesia arnoldii, is the flower of a parasite. There is a parasitic conifer, Parasitaxus usta, that grows in New Caledonia, and Hydnora africana looks like it comes from a scifi movie.
In the UK we have a wealth of parasitic and hemi parasitic plants that gain nutrients directly from other plants as well as a whole bunch of plant species that rob their nutrients either fully or partially from fungi.
Find out more about Mistletoe, including where to find it, how to identify it, and even more interesting facts and stories about this parasitic plant.
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