Pucker up this year, because you might not always have a sprig of mistletoe hanging around at your annual Christmas party. The popular, parasitic plant could soon be disappearing from its historic habitats.
The problem—in the U.K., at least—is that European mistletoe (Viscum album) is losing the traditional apple orchards it has long depended on for its survival as industrialized apple farming takes over the countryside. Since the 1950s England has lost at least 60 percent of its traditional orchards, which supply apples for alcoholic cider and juices. Some areas are down to just 10 percent of their old orchards, according to the nonprofit conservation charity National Trust.
As modern apple farming techniques take over, hundreds of traditional British apple orchards are currently lying abandoned, according to a report from The Independent. The forsaken trees are being overrun by mistletoe, which will eventually kill the them and leave the parasitic plants with nothing to grow on. If the orchards were being maintained, the mistletoe would periodically be cut back, protecting the apple trees and providing farmers with a secondary income source when they sold the mistletoe.
Industrial apple orchards do not provide a suitable habitat for the plant, says mistletoe expert Jonathan Briggs, who runs a Web site called The Mistletoe Pages. "The main problem with modern commercial apple orchards is that they're mostly machine-harvestable 'bush orchards' with very closely planted rows of small trees on a growth-limiting rootstock." Not only are the trees too small to support mistletoe's parasitic growth, "these orchards are very intensively managed, and any new mistletoe growths would be readily spotted and removed, as the grower is only interested in maximizing their apple crop—and a mistletoe growth would significantly affect the yield of these small trees," he says.
Despite the threat, Briggs says the holiday parasite is actually doing well—for now. In a separate interview, he told the Guardian, "Those older orchards are probably yielding more mistletoe than they used to because it's not being controlled. But because the mistletoe is not being controlled, fast forward 10 or 20 years and the orchards won't be there. The mistletoe will accelerate the trees' deaths, and it seems inevitable that we will have a shortage of mistletoe in 10 or 20 years."
To help give mistletoe a boost, the National Trust has launched a campaign via the Orchard Network to encourage orchard owners and other gardeners to take care of their plants. They also want homeowners to buy sustainably produced mistletoe grown in the U.K., not cheap imports.
Several British birds and insects depend on mistletoe for food, including a few species named after the plant: the mistle thrush (Turdus viscivorus), the mistletoe marble moth (Celypha woodiana), and the mistletoe weevil (aka the "kiss-me-slow" weevil, Ixapion variegatum). Last year, the National Trust warned that the mistletoe marble moth could now only be found on 14 sites and called on Brits to drink more cider so traditional orchards could thrive and provide good habitat for the endangered insects.
European mistletoe grows throughout Europe and in parts of Asia. The mistletoe that grows in North America is of a different but related species.
Photo: Mistletoe berries, via Wikipedia