Walks with Mistletoe

Mistletoe is a plant of deep winter, in that as an evergreen it is most easily seen when it’s deciduous host trees are bare of leaves, so the next few weeks are crucial if you want to see mistletoe. Spotting mistletoe in summer with trees in full leaf is a much more of challenging prospect, but one that, for me, has become a regular pastime on long car and train journeys. Since reading Rod Chapman’s “How to Grow Mistletoe” I have become quite attuned to spotting colonies of mistletoe amongst the winter and summer branches. I was therefore delighted when Rod suggested he and his partner Rue come over to Cambridge at the end of last month to see the mistletoe. They’d already checked out the profusion of mistletoe in the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens earlier in the winter, so we devised a one and a half hour walk that took in some of the larger colonies and a few odd solitary clumps around the city centre, as well as a couple of the major attractions of our historic university home-town. From the train station to Trumpington Road, skirting around the edge of the Botanic Gardens, across Coe Fen to the Mill Pond, along the ‘backs’ crossing the River Cam at Garrett Hostel Bridge  and on up to the old Castle Mound, home by lunchtime for warming soup, home-made bread and the luxurious wine and chocolates Rod and Rue brought with them.

Rod and Rue also brought a copy of C. James Cadbury and Philip H Oswald’s article “Mistletoe undergoes an explosive increase in Cambridgeshire”  (from “Nature in Cambridgeshire issue number 51” 2009) which attempts “a complete survey of mistletoe within the city” drawing on extensive material from two successive winter surveys from 2007 to 2009, it also uses other surveys and anecdotes going back to the nineteenth century. The article includes detailed tables showing the locations of over 1500 clumps of mistletoe in Cambridge, as well as their sizes, numbers, height from the ground and species of host trees. It is fascinating and informative reading and has certainly been guiding my steps for the past few weeks when out walking.

Our mistletoe expedition with Rod and Rue was no where near as comprehensive as  Cadbury and Oswald’s, although Rod took a number of good photos, from which information can be gleaned (these have been posted on The Mistletoe Foundation facebook page). As our walk circled around the city centre, primarily close to the river, we missed out on the fabulous colonies around Madingley Road, near Churchill College and the University Observatories, which we have marvelled at in the past. However, the mistletoe on Chaucer and Latham Roads were certainly on our walk and while notably visible high up in the distance from Trumpington Road, their size and profusion is even more astonishing close up at street level. Cadbury and Oswald’s survey explains that the distribution and spread of mistletoe in Britain is generally via mating pairs of Mistle Thrushes, who feed high in the topmost branches and this is clearly the case with the colonies around Chaucer Road. The increase in the spread of mistletoe over the past decade or so may well be attributed to an increase in the number of Blackwings overwintering in eastern England, and possibly accounts for an increase in mistletoe on lower branches where Blackwings feed.

By the Mill Pond on Coe Fen we found mistletoe that didn’t seem to be mentioned in the survey, a single fairly large clump on the lower branches of a Poplar just beyond the weir. There is little mistletoe in the immediate area and it is possible that this clump has grown since the survey of 2009, giving the walk the added pleasure of discovery. We ended our walk at the foot of Castle Mound, where a number of long-time Cambridge residents had spoken of mistletoe. We found innumerable clumps chiefly on crab apple trees around the Castle Hill area, most of them quite small, although there were a few well-established large clumps. Again, these colonies were not covered in the 2009 survey, so perhaps they have developed quite recently. Being on small trees these Castle Mound colonies perhaps attest to increased distribution by Blackwings. My one disappointment of the day was verification of the loss of mistletoe at St. Peters churchyard on Castle Hill. Back in August 2003 we were shown a small developing clump on a small tree close to the church porch by friend and geomancer Patrick McFadzean. We took a photo back then, and although slightly blurred, the distinctive shape of the mistletoe leaf is clearly visible low down amongst the leaves of a domesticated apple tree. In preparation for the walk with Rod and Rue we visited the churchyard only to find that not only the mistletoe but the whole tree had been removed. All that remained was a much damaged and scored stump in the ground. St Peters yard isn’t mentioned as a site in the survey and so perhaps had already been destroyed before 2007. I felt sad at this, especially since St Peters is said to be one of the oldest churches in the city centre and is built on a circular walled-in rise, as if atop a pre-christian burial mound, and seems to be be exactly the place where mistletoe should be found.

Jean Dark
March 2012

Further information and links on mistletoe:

Rod Chapman’s How to Grow Mistletoe
Rod Chapman’s Mistletoe Photographs
Jonathan’s Mistletoe Diary
C James Cadbury and Philip H Oswald’s survey
Earth Pathways Diary 2012 How to See Mistletoe by Jean Dark
Cambridge Mistletoe walk.  email: jean@paganbooks.eu
National Mistletoe Week is the first week in December each year

Many thanks to Rod and Rue Chapman for a wonderful day out.

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