Your tinsel covered Christmas tree may be a big part of your festive celebrations but, as we pass through winter, there are a number of native evergreen plants in our Biosphere that provide a vital service for our wildlife – notably Ivy and Mistletoe.
The beautiful flowers which have filled our countryside and gardens with colour, and provided our insects with nectar, have shut up shop come the autumn. But our Ivy only revealed its cryptic flowers in October, opening for business long after the others have closed their doors. In some ways ivy is the kebab shop of plants - it offers welcome nourishment for those insects that like staying out late in the year! And, like a kebab shop, you’re going to find a right old mix of characters queuing up for that one last meal before they go to sleep for the winter: beautiful butterflies dine alongside wasps; bumblebees jostle with hoverflies; our ivy bushes literally buzz with life.
The importance of ivy to wildlife cannot be understated. Aside from this vital late-season nectar supply, ivy’s evergreen leaves also feed caterpillars – including those of the Holly Blue butterfly and the delicate Swallow-tailed moth. These leathery leaves provide a hibernating site for Brimstone and Peacock butterflies. On cold winter evenings the ivy sings with the chatter and chirp of an invisible Starling and Sparrow choir roosting in the waterproof warmth. Its black berries keep our winter Thrushes filled up, and in the spring it is a nesting site for our Robins and Wrens. Ivy is a miniature nature reserve that can cover a blank brick wall like a piece of living graffiti!
But despite all the life it supports, ivy has a reputation as a killer, its roots sucking the life from the trees it covers. This simply isn’t true - ivy manufactures its own nourishment, just like any other honest plant! And we can’t forget the important service that ivy provides for us humans. For centuries ivy has protected us from house goblins. Bringing ivy into your home as a decoration at Christmas (the time when goblins are apparently at their most pesky) will ensure that your festive season passes without a burnt turkey or a blown fairy light!
But there is another festive plant which is partly parasitic (a ‘hemi-parasite’), obtaining some of its water and nutrients by vampirically sucking them from its host tree: Mistletoe. It still has the decency to do a bit of photosynthesis itself however, so it’s not 100% evil! In fact research has proved that mistletoe is an ecological ‘keystone’ species – without it there just isn’t as much life in our woodlands. Birds feed on their juicy white berries, which appear to be as messy to eat as a treacle and melted mozzarella pizza. Gooey beaks have to be wiped on a nearby branch, allowing any seeds to stick and sprout someplace new. Either that or the birds disperse the seed in the more traditional intestinal way.
Mistletoe is of course infamous for its power to draw people very close, but what compels us to kiss under the mistletoe? Other plants could claim similar magic powers. A few glasses of fermented French grapes or a shot of Scottish malted barley will conjure up enough Dutch courage for some botanically inspired Christmas smooching!
It’s easy to see why mistletoe would appear to hold mystical qualities. As autumn strips a tree back to its bark bones it reveals an evergreen mistletoe heart; a beacon of life in the dead of winter. This apparent immortality inspired many ancient fertility rituals. Druids, armed with gleaming golden sickles, would perform a mistletoe harvesting ceremony under a waxing moon (and slaughter two white bulls for good measure).
The practice of hanging mistletoe at Christmas didn’t turn up in a written document until the 1600s, and mention of lips meeting underneath it didn’t appear in print until 1817. Unsurprisingly, any ‘tradition’ involving kissing quickly became popular and since then everyone from Norse Gods to ancient Greeks, Gauls and Romans have been trying to claim that the first snog under the mistletoe was their idea.
So this Christmas keep looking high up in the tree tops to spy any mistletoe. Whilst I haven’t seen any yet as I walk around our Biosphere, I have seen plenty of proof that it’s still working its magic on the people down below! Season’s Greetings!
Lewes Community Wildlife Officer
Sussex Wildlife Trust