ANCIENT TRADITIONS

Do you remember those old Christmas movies where unrequited lovers are finally ‘requited’ under a bough of mistletoe? There is a bit of strategic positioning and a knowing glance above the leafy branch. A quick kiss ensures and Christmas Day unfolds in a blur of romantic love.The tradition of hanging mistletoe is an ancient and international one. The ancient Druids perceived the plant to have magical powers. It was used as a sign of love and friendship in Norse mythology, where the custom of kissing under the mistletoe comes from.

The Mistletoe Bird feeds on mistletoe fruit and distributes its seeds to new host plants. Photo: Birdlife Australia

The Mistletoe Bird feeds on mistletoe fruit and distributes its seeds to new host plants. Photo: Birdlife Australia

POOH ON A STICK

The name mistletoe comes from two Anglo-Saxon words, ‘Mistel’ (which means dung) and ‘tan’ (which means) stick. So you could translate mistletoe as ‘poo on a stick’. It’s not a very romantic name, but it is kind of accurate. You see, mistletoe is carried from tree to tree in the pooh of the birds that eat the seed. The bird wipes its rear end on the branch of a tree to help remove the sticky seed.

If ‘pooh on a stick’ isn’t enough to put you off, mistletoe’s habit of being ‘parasitic’ will be. Being called a ‘parasite’ is not exactly a compliment is it? It implies that the parasite only ‘takes’ and never ‘gives’ and that all that relentless ‘taking’ eventually results in the killing of the host. The sticky seed from the pooh of the bird grows into the vascular system of the tree sampling its sap.

The attachment point of mistletoe on a eucalypt branch.

The attachment point of mistletoe on a eucalypt branch.

However, research into the parasitic or hemi-parasitic mistletoe plant reveals we should think much more fondly of these interesting plants. Mistletoe, infact doesn’t just ‘take’. It ‘gives’ so much to woodland habitats, dramatically increasing biodiversity wherever it grows.

When we first came to Highfield Farm we noted the abundance of mistletoe in the eucalyptus trees. We wondered if one day we’d lose those trees to the parasitic action of the mistletoe and wondered if we should cut it out of the trees as one visitor had suggested.

Sticky mistletoe seeds

Sticky mistletoe seeds

We are very glad we didn’t remove them. A few short months after a visitor suggested cutting the mistletoe out, we heard of a very interesting study that linked mistletoe to enhanced bird diversity. Conducted by Dr David Watson and his team from Charles Sturt University, the researchers compared two types of woodlands – ones where all the mistletoe had been removed and others where the mistletoe was left intact. Bird surveys of the two different areas were compared, and quite a substantial difference in bird diversity was seen.

After three years, the woodlands where the mistletoe had been removed had 30% less bird diversity than areas where the mistletoe was left in the host trees. The greatest decline was among insect-eating birds, especially those species that feed primarily on the woodland floor.

Apparently, the secret of mistletoes and bird diversity is all in the leaf litter. Eucalyptus trees drop nutrient-poor leaves – the trees suck back the nutrition into the tree before shedding the leaves. But mistletoes shed their leaves while they are still green and full of nutrition. This nutritious leaf litter encourages microbial and insect activity on the ground, which in turn leads to enhanced habits for insectivorous birds.

So it turns out that one of the reasons for the incredible bird diversity at Highfield – 131 species identified so far – is because of this amazing plant.

Maybe we should all become ‘parasites’. We should all ‘give’ more than we ‘take’ and work to enhance biodiversity.

So this Christmas, instead of kissing under the mistletoe, kiss the mistletoe instead and thank it for it’s role in the environment.

TO LEARN MORE

You can find information on the significance of mistletoe from Dr. David Watson at this link… Mistletoe the Kiss of Life for Healthy Forests.

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