A Natural History of Christmas Part 2: Underneath the mistletoe…..

Christmas trees, carol singing, Christmas stockings – many Northern Hemisphere Christmas traditions have been brought to New Zealand. One that we haven’t ’embraced’ is kissing under the mistletoe. I wonder why not? Is it because of our reserved kiwi natures or is it our mistletoes…….?

By Copyright by E.J. McCullag[...] [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Woman standing under mistletoe, Viscum album, c. 1898. Copyright by E.J. McCullag[…] [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There are around 1300 species of mistletoe worldwide and all are parasites. They grow on the branch, or in a few cases the roots, of a host plant where they break through it’s bark and tap into its supply of water and nutrients. The mistletoe originally referred to in the kissing tradition is the European mistletoe (Viscum album). It is not entirely clear how this tradition originated and why it has ties to Christmas but references to mistletoe are found in Scandinavian and Celtic pagan mythology. European mistletoe is only a rare exotic in New Zealand but we do have nine of our own mistletoe species.

Mistletoe parasitizing a beech tree, Hopkins River, New Zealand. Image: William M. Connolley. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0. Source: Wikipedia

A spectacular flowering mistletoe parasitizing a beech tree, Hopkins River, New Zealand. Image: William M. Connolley. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0. Source: Wikipedia

One of our mistletoe species, Adam’s mistletoe (Trilepedia adamsii), has the unfortunate claim to fame of being one of New Zealand’s few extinct plants so there will be no kissing under its branches. It was last seen near Cambridge in 1954. This impressive video, made by University of Otago students, explores possible reasons for its demise.

Many of our other mistletoe species have been declining since the early 1900s. This is mainly a consequence of possum browse, vegetation clearance and dwindling native birds, which are required for pollination and to disperse their seeds. Strategies that conservationists are using to protect mistletoes include putting aluminium bands around the trunks of host trees to stop climbing possums.

Red mistletoe (Peraxilla tetrapetela) Temple Stream, Ram Hill, Otago. Photo: Leon Perrie.

Red mistletoe (Peraxilla tetrapetela) Temple Stream, Ram Hill, Otago. Photo: Leon Perrie.

Given the rarity of New Zealand’s mistletoes, I’m glad New Zealander’s aren’t harvesting them to hang above their doorways. However, if you see one in the bush there is nothing stopping you from stealing a quick kiss.

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