A kiss under the (native) mistletoe
Posted at 5:19am Thursday 27 Dec, 2018 | By Forest & Bird OPINION
If you get a kiss under the mistletoe this Christmas, you're part of a tradition that dates back to the Druids and Vikings who considered these plants both magical and medicinal. In New Zealand we have our very own magical mistletoes that bloom a brilliant red at this time of year. Along with our other “New Zealand Christmas trees”—the crimson Pohutukawa and scarlet Rata—locally we have a brilliant member of the Beech Mistletoe family that can be easily seen at Kidds Bush on the shore of Lake Hawea or above the Blue Pools car park at Makarora.
Beech Mistletoes are semi-parasitic—they grow on other trees (mainly but not exclusively native beeches), and get water and nutrients from their hosts. But they have green leaves of their own and do not kill the host tree. The local species is Red Mistletoe / pikirangi (Peraxilla tetrapetala), generally growing on black beech. Many of the clusters are large and may be decades old, as these plants grow extremely slowly.
The masses of red tubular flowers are pollinated by birds, mainly bellbirds and tui, and sometimes by native bees. There's a bit of a trick to it; the bird has to tweak the end of the flower to open it. The flower pops open with a burst of pollen, which dusts the bird's head as it probes inside for the nectar. The bird then carries this pollen to the next plant. If no birds visit the flowers, they remain closed and cannot reproduce. Birds also disperse the berries, which stick onto the branch of a new host tree when pooped out.
Beech Mistletoes are declining and have disappeared from many places they once occurred—one species has even gone extinct. The decline is caused by possums, which love to eat mistletoe, and along with rats, stoats and other predators, kill the native birds that distribute mistletoe pollen and seeds. So looking after our magical mistletoe is yet another reason for loving our native birds, and controlling their enemies.
As our local plants are so vulnerable, please don't pick them to hang at home and elicit kisses, but feel free to go up to Kidds Bush and have a cuddle under the beech trees!
You can help: Volunteer with Forest and Bird in our efforts to protect native birds, or join one of the other local groups doing the same. Contact: Ben Goddard 027 9000 768 or firstname.lastname@example.org.