This month Dr Ben Aldiss takes a break from his A-Z of Norfolk nature to look at the flora and fauna associated with the festive season
Dr Ben Aldiss on the stories behind holly, ivy, mistletoe, the robin and more
The holly and the ivy, When they are both full grown, Of all trees that are in the wood, The holly bears the crown
So begins one of our most popular carols. There are few of us who don’t look forward to Christmas, but I wonder how many people stop to think of the fascinating plants and animals associated with it.
I thought I’d take a break from my A to Z of Norfolk Nature to take a look at some of these festive organisms, beginning with the two mentioned in the carol, together with the mysterious mistletoe.
Holly, ivy and mistletoe not only provide us with a traditional splash of colour at Christmas, but they also provide food and shelter to some of our most attractive mammals and birds.
Apart from their decorative qualities, these plants have little in common and all are very unusual. Entirely unrelated to each other, they are the sole European representatives of three large families of plants, the other members being largely restricted to the tropics. And although their berries may appear at the same time, their flowering seasons are widely different: mistletoe flowers from February to April,
holly from May to August and ivy from September to November.
By far the majority of plants are hermaphrodite, having both male and female sex organs in each flower, but holly is dioecious – it has separate sexes like us. This explains the frustration some people feel when their holly tree never produces berries: it will be a male. Though it has small, creamy-white flowers, they only produce pollen. You need a female plant for berries. Some months after the flowers have faded, the developing berries assume their familiar scarlet colour.
Red is supposedly a warning signal, so it seems strange that birds are generally attracted to it. Yet red berries are undoubtedly eaten in their millions and holly, amongst others, depends on birds – like those attractive Siberian winter visitors, the redwing and fieldfare – for the dispersal of its seeds. This apparent paradox can be explained quite simply: with their greater mobility, birds can do a more efficient job of dispersing seeds than mammals. To make doubly sure that the right organism eats them, most plants make their berries poisonous to would-be thieves or put them out of reach. Holly goes one step further and arms its lower leaves with spines to thwart browsing animals. Higher up the tree, where the threat is less, the leaves are not so prickly. So most red berries are at once a warning to creatures like us, but an attractant to birds that disperse their seeds.
Ironically, holly has a more sinister reputation too – its bark yields an adhesive that dries very slowly. The infamous birdlime, this glue can be spread on the twigs of shrubs and trees, effectively trapping any small bird that perches on it. It is still used in parts of southern Europe to capture finches for eating or for selling as caged songbirds.
Ivy also attracts birds. Strangely enough, this familiar species belongs to the ginseng family and is related to the plant that produces ‘rice’ paper and flaked goldfish food. Although its leaves can tolerate the deep shade of the woodland floor, it will only flower where its shoots can reach sunshine. Its black berries are designed to be eaten by species such as blackbirds and wood pigeons. The nutritious flesh is digested, whilst the resilient seeds pass through unscathed, to be deposited some distance from the parent plant in the birds’ droppings, which then act as a handy dose of fertiliser.
Ivy is of great importance to Europe’s insects, mammals and birds, providing a rich source of nectar and pollen at a time when most other flowers have faded, nutritious berries in the depths of winter and much-needed nesting sites and shelter amongst its evergreen leaves. In particularly bitter winters, wrens will huddle in large numbers in thick ivy to keep warm.
Of this trio of Christmas plants, mistletoe is undoubtedly the strangest. Sprouting from the weary, bare branches of a gnarled old tree, its fountains of livid green leaves and white berries proclaim vigour and vitality in the lifeless winter landscape. Is it any wonder that for time immemorial it has been the subject of folklore and superstition? The druids of ancient Gaul used to collect it from oak trees on the sixth day of the moon at the end of the year, believing that it kept the tree alive over winter and thinking that some of its magic might pass to them. The absence of any visible connection between the mistletoe and the ground only served to confirm their suspicion that it was a godly plant rather
‘In particularly bitter winters, wrens huddle in large numbers in thick ivy to keep warm’
than merely mortal – a belief that has led to the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe at Christmas time.
Mistletoe is a hemiparasite, tapping its host for water and minerals, yet capable of making its own food by photosynthesis. Its preferred hosts are apple and poplar, but it will attack many species of tree, especially deciduous ones. Like holly, it is dioecious, so only female plants have berries, and it relies on birds to disperse its seeds.
That most familiar of Christmas birds, the robin, is very partial to mistletoe berries. Unlike holly, though, mistletoe has a special relationship with a particular species – the mistle thrush – and the Latin names of both organisms give clues to this association. The scientific name of mistletoe, Viscum album (literally ‘white glue’), refers to its sticky berries and the name of the thrush, Turdus viscivorus (‘mistletoe-eating thrush’), highlights the importance of this bird in the life of the plant.
The reason why mistletoe is often tantalisingly out of reach can be explained by the thrushes’ behaviour. Male mistle thrushes establish territories soon after Christmas and can be heard singing their far-reaching song from the tree tops as early as January. At this time of year the weather is often stormy and, as their territories are comparatively large, mistle thrushes prefer to shout their song from the topmost branches to be heard.
Mistletoe berries are their favourite winter food, but they hate the sticky seeds and wipe their beaks vigorously on the nearest branch to remove them. In March, when the sap of the host tree begins to flow, the seeds germinate and push their special roots (called haustoria) into the living tissue.
The distribution of mistletoe in Europe is a puzzling one. Although it is common on the continent, it is only found in southern Britain, with Norfolk being on its northern boundary. So mistletoe is relatively scarce here, hardly seen at all north-west of Norwich, unless deliberately established in orchards.
The Christmas tree is a relative newcomer to the British festive season, having been introduced to the royal household in 1800 by Charlotte of MecklenburgStrelitz, the German-born wife of George III. An 1840’s engraving of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with their children at the foot of a Christmas tree started a craze amongst the well-to-do, but the practice only really took off after publication of an article in the Illustrated London News of 1848.
The traditional Christmas tree is the Norway spruce, found growing wild in cold, wet mountains from southern
‘The Christmas tree started a craze amongst the well-to-do’
Scandinavia to the Balkans and Alps. Ideally suited for hanging baubles, tinsel and lights, its only drawback is the dropping of its needles, though apparently this can be reduced if the tree is left in the ground to be subjected to three hard frosts before being cut.
The modern trend, of course, is to replace the Norway spruce by the ‘Nordmann’ – so-called because of its Latin name Abies nordmanniana. This tree is surprisingly rare in the wild, being found only on the mountain slopes of north-east Turkey and the west Caucasus, where it becomes the tallest tree in Europe, some reaching a height of 70 metres.
Apart from its undeniable beauty, the Nordmann fir is less prickly to handle than the Norway spruce and has another huge advantage, put rather wryly by Owen Johnson, the author of Collins Tree Guide: ‘The leaves can persist for 25 years, so do not fall off in the 12 days of Christmas’
Apart from these plants, two animals epitomise Christmas. Both are birds, but only one is native – the familiar robin. Recently voted Britain’s National Bird, the robin has been the subject of winter scenes on Christmas cards since the mid nineteenth century. There are many reasons for this, but three seem particularly likely.
An old legend has it that the robin used to be a dull brown bird until one sang close to Christ to comfort him as he was dying on the cross. Blood from his wounds stained the bird’s feathers – hence the red breast and the religious association with Christmas.
Secondly, the British robin is remarkably friendly and will approach gardeners closely. This is in marked contrast to European robins, which tend to be very wary and skulking in their habits.
The bird’s colourful feathers, fluffed out against the snow, are a cheery sight and gave Victorian postmen in their red livery their nickname. The ‘robins’ delivered Christmas cards come rain, snow or shine and – like their namesake – were a welcome reminder of Christmas cheer.
Most Christmas meals involve the roasting of a turkey, but we hardly give a thought to the origin of this unlikely tradition. As readers in Norfolk, though, we ought to be more aware than others, since Bernard Matthews started his turkey empire way back in the spring of 1950.
Like the pheasant and chicken, the turkey is a member of the gamebird family. All three are powerful, but reluctant fliers, only needing to use their massive flight muscles to make a quick escape from predators in the wild. It’s these muscles in the breast, together with the strong ones in the legs that provide us with so much meat.
You might be excused for thinking that turkeys originated from Turkey, but you’d be very wrong! In fact they come from the USA and central America and were originally brought over to Europe in the 16th century by Spanish conquistadors who found them being domesticated in Mexico.
So how did turkeys get such an inappropriate name? For hundreds of years most turkeys brought to Britain came in mixed cargoes from the Middle East in ships owned by ‘Turkey Merchants’ – so-called because these men originated from the Ottoman Empire.
Apparently the birds they delivered had been reared in Europe and were nicknamed turkey cocks, after the merchants who landed them. Many other countries call turkeys by a name suggesting that they originated in India. For instance, the French ‘dinde’ is a contraction of d’Inde – meaning ‘from India’. These misnomers probably arose from the confusion of Christopher Columbus, who, when he originally discovered turkeys, thought he had landed in India – not America.
After this somewhat alternative look at familiar festive animals and plants, I’ll be returning to the alphabet next month. In the meantime, Happy Christmas everybody.
Dr Ben Aldiss is a wildlife journalist and broadcaster, deputy managing editor of World Agriculture and an adviser in biodiversity and education on farms.
ABOVE: A Norfolk turkey
BELOW:The robin, Britain’s most popular bird
BELOW: The mistle thrush
LEFT:The Christmas tree