Friday, 21 December 2007

#42 Under the mistletoe

According to Pagan history, mistletoe was considered a sacred plant because it was one of the few evergreen plants in the northern hemisphere winter. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe began as a fertility ritual, so be careful who you kiss under the mistletoe this Christmas.

Mistletoes in the Hunter Valley are primarily late spring and summer blooming plants and they can make a pleasant sight when most other native flowers are fading.

Probably Dendrophthoe vitellina, flowering early December

Although I am reasonably confident with my identifications here, I am not positive, so if any readers who are more experienced than I disagree with my identifications, I'd be most appreciative if you could let me know.

What are mistletoes?

Mistletoes (family Loranthaceae) are hemiparasites which rely on host trees for water and mineral nutrients, but perform photosynthesis in their own leaves.

Many advanced genera have species that are host-specific and have leaves and a general appearance closely resembling those of the host tree. Host-specificity is a feature of mistletoes of the drier open forests and woodland; those of rainforests are rarely host-specific.

A close association has developed between mistletoes and certain small birds which act as pollinating and seed dispersal agents. The Mistletoe Bird (Dichaeum hirundinaceum) feeds on mistletoe berries and insects. The seeds pass rapidly through the bird and, when excreted, adhere by the remains of the sticky pulp to a tree branch. Permanent attachment of the embryo to the branch can occur soon after.

Dendrophthoe vitellina

This is a spreading to slightly pendulous epiphyte with conspicuous yellow to orange flowers from July to January. I am slightly unsure of my identification of this species, but it is a common plant in the Hunter Valley mainly flowering from late spring through early summer.

It can make a spectacular display and is found mainly on Myrtaceae (which includes eucalypt and melaleuca) in open forest and woodland as well as roadside verges.

Leaves are greyish-green, elliptic, rounded at the apex, and with a prominent midvein. Flowers are an attractive yellow with red tip and 25 to 40mm long and borne in short dense clusters. PlantNET has more information.

A close-up of flowers of Dendrophthoe vitellina

Dendrophthoe vitellina is an attractive flowering plant

Mistletoes have a somewhat bad reputation as 'tree killers', but this is misleading. As it is in the best interests of the mistletoe to have a healthy host, it is not the object of this parasitic plant to kill its host tree. Due to land clearing to make way for agriculture, industry and residential development, fewer host trees are available, resulting in a higher per-tree distribution of mistletoes.

Amyema cambagei - Sheoak Mistletoe

This mistletoe is epiphytic on Sheoaks (Casuarina spp), especially the River Oak (Casuarina cunninghamiana), and its leaves are long and terete, mimicking those of its host.

It is a spreading to pendulous plant with crimson flowers 15 to 21mm long. There is more information on this species at PlantNET.

Flowers, fruit and leaves of the Sheoak Mistletoe

A close-up of the flowers of the Sheoak Mistletoe

There was also a broad-leaf mistletoe growing on this tall casuarina tree, but I was unable to get close enough to it to photograph it.

Amyema quandang - Grey Mistletoe

Amyema quandang var. quandang is a pendulous epiphyte with a general greyish appearance as the leaves are covered with short whitish matted hairs.

Flowers are 16 to 20mm long, green beneath grey hairs, with red stamens and style, splitting into 5 free petals. It grows on Acacia species in drier woodland, and flowers from August to December. I photographed this one mid September west of Singleton in the Hunter Valley. There is more information at PlantNET.

Delicate flowers and grey foliage of Grey Mistletoe

Fleshy pulp surrounding mistletoe seed

Drooping mistletoes are coming into flower in open forests and roadside verges in the Hunter Valley now, and the very pretty rainforest species Amylotheca dictyophleba should also be bursting into bloom. I'll get out and about and post up more mistletoes shortly.

***** ***** *****

Christmas is different things to different people. I hope everyone stays safe and has reason to smile - and I'd like to send a special cheerio to those who are lonely, unwell or low in spirit.

Seasons greetings from Gaye


Denis Wilson said...

Hi Gaye.

Good post on Mistletoes.
Here in Robertson we have Mistletoes which specialise on the Blackwood Wattle. When they flower, the Brush Wattlebirds come up from the sandstone plateau below, to raid the flowers, which are obviously full of honey.

They fit a pattern of flowers designed to attract Honeyeaters - red flowers (birds see red very well), tubular flowers.

In the cool temperate forest we have very few flowers to attract Honeyeaters - except Mistletoe. Most of our plants evolved before birds arrived, and so have tiny flowers sui9table for pollination by insects. Mostly small, white flowers, so probably pollinated by moths. So the Mistletoe is an interesting exception.

Nice photo, Santa.
Hapy Christmas to you and your family.


Lola said...

An appropriate blog for this festive season. Often hard to photograph with mistletoes suspended high in their host trees, you have done well with your illustrations. Living in southern WA, we are currently enjoying the golden, yellow flowers of the largest mistletoe, Nuytsia floribunda, commonly referred to as the WA Christmas Tree.

Compliments of the season to you and your family.

Gaye from the Hunter said...

hi Denis,

very interesting account of the mistletoes and other flora of your area.

My daughter took the 'santa' photo last night when we finished dressing the tree, which this year is a substantial twig from an Acacia tree - smacks fingers.....I don't normally go around picking native foliage, but we discarded our tree last year after more than 20 years, and I wanted a small tree which I couldn't get in town, so I improvised. The kids thought it was great. (I'll see if I can pick up one on special after Christmas, at one of the bigger stores).


Gaye from the Hunter said...

hi Lola,

when we were in WA in Spring last year, we saw just a few early blooms from the Nuytsia floribunda beginning to open - they are obviously a spectacular sight in full bloom.

I'm pleased you enjoyed my mistletoe pictures, and you are right - some have been difficult to get. I'm looking forward to seeking out more species.


David said...

Hi Gaye -

Thanks for the informative mistletoe post and all your blogging over 2007. I've very much enjoyed reading your posts.

All the best for Xmas 07 I hope 2008 brings lots of good surprises :D!

Cheers -

Gaye from the Hunter said...

hi David,

blogging about my nature observations has been a great experience for me. I've learned so much.

Thanks, and cheers to you too.


Fliss and Mike Adventures said...

Whether it is a small thing about Australia - even just the flora... I love looking at it... being an Aussie living in Florida, USA since 2002... anything from home makes me feel better (me, I am originally from Toronto, NSW)...

Gaye from the Hunter said...

hello Fliss and Mike,

you will probably be surprised to know that the maximum temperature in Newcastle on Christmas day was 22degrees - and the Hunter River was well up. Most unusual weather for a Hunter Valley Christmas - swimming only for the young and brave.

Best wishes to you,

Esperance Blog said...

Hi Gaye
You must have a lot of mistletoes birds in your area to have such a variety of beautiful mistletoes.

In the Esperance area we do not have any mistletoe species other than the Christmas Tree, Nuytsia floribunda. This is because we do not have mistletoe birds to spread the seed.

About 100 km NE from Esperance there is a large saltlake complex where a mistletoe species with a specific reliance on a Melaleuca host. The problem was how did this mistletoe get there as the surrounding bush had no mistletoe?

After a period of investigation I discovered a narrow path of another mistletoe species, this time on a eucalypt host.

This permitted the mistletoe birds that were common (along with numerous mistletoes species) further inland to reach this near coastal area to feed from this common, but very localised Melaleuca hosted mistletoe.

You may wonder how the mistletoe reached this saltlake complex in the first place. Well that reveals another interesting story!

This Melaleuca host occurs in isolated pockets around the coast and into SA. What I think happened is during the last ice age when sea-levels were much lower, there was dry land below the tall cliffs around the Bight, much like you see from Eucla around the coast to Israelite Bay. This area would have been vegetated with compatible habitat for the Melaleuca host. So I suggest, around the coast below the Bight would have been the original pathway for the mistletoe birds.

Anyway, great blog Gaye.

Gaye from the Hunter said...

hello Jack,

Thank you for your fascinating account of mistletoes of southern WA and of their expected origins and further occurences.

You have an extensive understanding and knowledge of the natural world, and I am always extremely pleased to hear of your experiences and awareness.