December – What to look out for
December is the month of CHRISTMAS and that makes it hard to avoid references to mistletoe, robins, holly and ivy! Let’s learn more about these Christmas symbols which you might spot on a walk around the reserve at this festive time of year.
How many Christmas cards will you receive featuring a robin somewhere in the picture? British robins are our favourite, friendly garden bird, largely because they can become so tame and, let’s face it, they are such pretty birds!
It is not hard to see robins on the reserve at this time of year. Many of them might be winter visitors from elsewhere, even from the continent. They will have come here because it’s milder here than further north or east.
Robins sing all through the winter, so listen out for their beautiful, wistful tune as you walk through the reserve. This is what it sounds like:
Robin song recorded by david m. from www.xeno-canto.org
Now that most of the leaves have fallen off many of the trees on the reserve, mistletoe shows up really clearly because it keeps its green leaves all year round. You will see a lot of it around the reserve if you look out for it.
To germinate, seeds of the mistletoe do not have to pass through the gut of a bird. The seeds are surrounded by a very sticky pulp (viscin) which often stick to a bird’s beak when the berries are eaten. They are then often wiped off onto a branch when the bird cleans its beak. The viscin then hardens to fix the seed to the bark of a new host tree and sometimes these seeds germinate.
|The seed then grows a root, which burrows through the bark of the tree and into the sapwood inside. Here is a picture of this happening on a tree in my garden.
The mistletoe gets water and minerals from the tree, though it also makes some of its own food by photosynthesis, which is why it has green leaves.
If the Robin is the ultimate Christmas bird, Holly must be the ultimate Christmas plant. As the carol says “the holly wears the crown” and its dark green leaves and bright red berries have become the colours of Christmas.
Unlike many plants, holly has trees of different sexes. You won’t find berries on a male tree; their flowers only produce pollen.
Holly was valued by farmers in bygone days in many parts of the country as an important source of winter fodder. Branches would be cut off trees and, despite the prickles, cattle and sheep fed on leaves.
If you want to read more about this wonderful plant follow this link – Ivy post
Did you know?
- Ivy was once thought to be a way of countering the worse effects of alcohol
- “Ale-stakes”, poles covered in ivy, were once used as signs for taverns
- Ivy was traditionally seen as a “female” plant and holly as a “male” one
- Young Queen Victoria once wore a wreath of ivy intertwined with diamonds in her hair
- Traditional schoolgirl rhyme: “Ivy, Ivy, I love you; In my bosom I put you; The first young man who speaks to me; My future husband he shall be.”
- Apple, lime and poplar are mistletoe’s favourite hosts, but it can parasitize many different species
- Mistletoe growing on oak trees is unusual and very rare. This may be why the druids were supposed to particularly value mistletoe harvested from an oak tree
- Mistle thrush and blackcap are the two main dispersers of mistletoe
- Like holly, mistletoe plants are either male or female. Only female plants carry berries
- Kissing under the mistletoe may have originated from Norse mythology and probably began in the 18th century when it was first used as a festive decoration in our homes. One kiss was allowed for each berry and after each kiss a berry would be removed until there were none left.
- Holly wood was traditionally used to make stocks and horse whips
- Holly trees were left standing in cut hedgerows “to stop witches running along the tops of the hedges”