Sea­sonal spe­cial:

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

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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

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