NATURE NOTES: One of the most Christmassy of plants and symbols of the season can be found all around Croydon, as MOIRA O’DONNELL explains
Mistletoe is one of the most Christmassy of plants, and at this time of year will no doubt be featuring prominently in one form or another as we start to decorate our homes and write our Christmas cards.
Outside however, many of Croydon’s trees have already prepared themselves for the festive season and are playing host to spherical balls of mistletoe.
The plant’s seasonal significance is wrapped in myths and legends, the origins of which appear lost in the mists of time. But it has been traditional in England since the 1700s and which became particularly popular in Victorian times to hang a bunch of evergreen mistletoe in your home and, if you meet someone beneath it, to give them a kiss.
The druids of ancient Britain saw mistletoe as a symbol of fertility and new life, and this is probably where the kissing tradition stems from.
One of the things I most look forward to in the autumn each year is when the trees start to drop their leaves and reveal the fascinating secret that has been hidden beneath their foliage. I grew up in Scotland and had never seen mistletoe – Viscum album – growing until I moved to Croydon.
This is explained by a quick look at the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland distribution map for mistletoe which reveals that there are very few recorded observations in Scotland or the north of England.
Mistletoe is a hemi-parasitic, evergreen plant. It can make some of its own food via photosynthesis, but obtains water and minerals from its host tree.
The commonest hosts trees are apple, rowan, lime, hawthorn and hybrid black poplars. I most often see it in Croydon on rowans and limes.
The flowers are very inconspicuous, and male and female flowers are found on different plants.
This means that if you see a plant with berries it must be a female, and a plant without berries will be a male.
The seeds of mistletoe are spread by birds as they feed on the berries. Either the seeds stick to their beaks and get smeared off on a branch, or are eaten and then excreted in their droppings. There is a gluey pulp around the seeds called viscin, some of which can survive the journey through a bird’s digestive system, and this hardens and fastens the seed in place on the branch.
As the new mistletoe plant grows, its roots penetrate through the bark of its host. You can read more about mistletoe and its life cycle here.
As well as the relatively recent Christmas tradition of kissing under the mistletoe, its seemingly magical ability to appear from nowhere has for many centuries captured the human imagination.
There are many mistletoe traditions and legends and you can find out some more about its place in mythology and folklore here.
There are lots of places you can see mistletoe growing in Croydon, and here are the locations of some of the best trees I have found:
• At the junction of Ashburton Avenue and Addiscombe Road
• The bottom of Radcliffe Road
• On Upper Shirley Road near Coloma School
• Street trees on Harland Avenue, West Way Gardens, Temple Avenue and Devonshire Way.
• On Coombe Road adjacent to Lloyd Park.
Every autumn I seem to spot another Croydon tree or two adorned with mistletoe to add to my list. Email us at Inside Croydon with any others that you spot.
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Great to know more about this mysterious plant – thanks. There are several big clumps of mistletoe in a tree that I can’t identify (twisting bark like sweet chestnut, but don’t think that’s what it is) in a garden at the junction of Courtney Road and Waddon Road. We’ve known about this site for over 17 years but can’t see any in any other trees in the vicinity.