Under the mistletoe

Mistletoe features in many Christmas songs, stories and on cards – but even though we celebrate Christmas in the ‘wrong’ season we have our own native mistletoes flowering over summer.

According to the Department of Conservation website, New Zealand has nine mistletoe species: The three species found mainly in beech forest are red mistletoe (Peraxilla tetrapetala), scarlet mistletoe (P. colensoi) and yellow mistletoe (Alepis flavida); the five species found in lowland forest and scrub are small-flowered mistletoe (Ileostylus micranthus), white mistletoe (Tupeia antarctica) and three dwarf or leafless mistletoes (Korthalsella salicornioides, K.lindsayi and K. clavata). One species (Trilepedia adamsii or Adams’s mistletoe) is presumed extinct; it was last seen in 1954.

Scarlet mistletoe in flower in the southwest of the South Island. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Generally, populations are declining throughout the country, mainly due to browsing pests, such as possums and rats, a decline in the populations of native birds that pollinate the plants and spread the seeds, and loss of habitat.

The scarlet mistletoe and rifleman bird were featured on the $2 note which was in circulation from July 10, 1967 to 1991, when the note was replaced by a coin.

But the plants do themselves few favours. Researcher Jenny Ladley intended to hand-pollinate flowers during her work in 1992 but found many that had ripened but few that had opened. Suspecting she was missing something, she hauled herself up into a tree to watch – along came a tui which flicked the flower open with its beak, releasing pollen on to its head and gaining access to nectar at the base of the flower.

So specialised pollination, and if bird numbers decline in an area, the potential for a low pollination season. What else? Some mistletoes have relationships with only a limited number of trees and so the seed has to find the right host; all the native mistletoes grow extremely slowly (15mm in 2 years!) making them extremely vulnerable to browsing animals; and the flowering rate varies from year to year. Read more in this NZ Geographic article.

One way of knowing if you’re in a mistletoe area in the New Zealand bush in summer is to look at the track for the telltale fallen red flowers. The plants are often growing high above you.

Our mistletoe, like its European counterparts, is semiparasitic, meaning that although it takes nutrients from its host tree, it also photosynthesises its own food and doesn’t kill the host.

A Victorian Christmas card showing a kiss between a mistletoe girl and a holly boy.

Although mistletoe is now associated with Christmas, myths around the plant date back to at least the Viking era.

When the god Odin’s son Baldur was prophesied to die, his mother Frigg, the goddess of love, went to all the animals and plants and asked them to promise not to harm him. But she neglected to consult with the unassuming mistletoe, so the scheming god Loki made an arrow from the plant, which was used to kill Baldur. According to happier versions, the gods were able to resurrect Baldur. Frigg then declared mistletoe a symbol of love and peace and promised a kiss to all who passed beneath it.

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