Meet me under the Mistletoe

This plant for love birds is a parasite. Food for thought. Photo by Hornet Photography. Mistletoe-Viscum album. CC. https://flic.kr/p/jKt9Kz

This plant for love birds is a parasite. Food for thought. Photo by Hornet Photography. Mistletoe-Viscum album. CC. https://flic.kr/p/jKt9Kz

In this season of holiday parties and festive family gatherings, let’s take a look at the plant we smooch under in December and then forget for the rest of the year: mistletoe.

Mistletoe is not holly

It’s a common mistake. Hollies are evergreen trees with spiky leaves and red berries. Mistletoe is an evergreen with smooth oval leaves and white berries. It is also a parasite that hangs out in tree branches.

 Stuck on you

Mistletoe doing its parasitic thing. Photo by Neil Howard. Tree with Mistletoe-Hampton Court Palace. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7rSpe4

Mistletoe doing its parasitic thing. Photo by Neil Howard. Tree with Mistletoe-Hampton Court Palace. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7rSpe4

Mistletoe steals food from the tree it lives on. The mistletoe seed latches onto a tree branch and penetrates the bark with its roots. Then it slurps up the tree’s hard-won water and minerals like drinking a bottomless milkshake.

Not only do mistletoe plants have a good view up in the tree, they also get a lot of light. They use this light to make food of their own through photosynthesis.

Some mistletoe species even parasitize other mistletoes. Nature is strange.

All in the family

The mistletoe family, Loranthaceae, has over 1000 species. Most species are tropical. The one we kiss under, Viscum album, grows in temperate Europe, Asia and Africa. Viscum album prefers to grow on commercially valuable trees like apple, oak, poplar and hawthorn.

What do witches’ brooms have to do with Christmas?

Trees have some strange responses to mistletoe infection, like developing these gnarled branches. Photo by Nick Bonzey. Witch’s broom. CC. https://flic.kr/p/2jXZ1z

Trees have some strange responses to mistletoe infection, like developing these gnarled branches. Photo by Nick Bonzey. Witch’s broom. CC. https://flic.kr/p/2jXZ1z

Mistletoe grows very slowly. Viscum album only gets to be about 2-3 feet tall. Mistletoe is almost immortal. It only dies if the host dies. Or if a tree farmer yanks them out with a pole.

Tree farmers are not big mistletoe fans. Severe mistletoe infestations can drain a tree’s resources. Instead of growing taller or producing more apples, the trees spend their energy feeding the mistletoe.

Trees sometimes try to fight back against the mistletoe by growing several branches around it. These branches are often deformed, and are called ‘witches’ brooms.’ Unfortunately, these witches’ brooms suck the tree’s resources even more. If the tree dies, the witches’ broom is often the last part to go.

It’s not all bad though. Birds love to make nests in witches’ brooms. But, then again, birds are also a mistletoe’s best friend.

The dung plant

One way that mistletoe seeds get around. Photo by coniferconifer. Dispersing Mistletoe seeds by Japanese Waxwing. CC. https://flic.kr/p/kW7zJF

One way that mistletoe seeds get around. Photo by coniferconifer. Dispersing Mistletoe seeds by Japanese Waxwing. CC. https://flic.kr/p/kW7zJF

 

How on earth does this air-borne plant make sure its seeds get stuck on tree branches? The answer has two wings and a beak.

Remember those white berries? Each one is full of sticky pulp and a single seed. The pulp is toxic to humans and animals, but not to birds. After guzzling the berries, birds will scrape their beaks against tree bark to remove the sticky pulp. Any seeds that gets scraped onto the bark now have a new home to parasitize.

Birds also poop in  trees and spread the seeds that way. This is where mistletoe got its name. Mistel is an old Anglo-Saxon word for dung. Something to think about while smooching under this fabled plant.

The weird Canadian cousin

Canada has tiny mistletoe that grows on conifers, of course. Photo by Ken-ichi Ueda. Bad Seed. CC. https://flic.kr/p/8Jr92s

Canada has tiny mistletoe that grows on conifers, of course. Photo by Ken-ichi Ueda. Bad Seed. CC. https://flic.kr/p/8Jr92s

 

The mistletoe of holiday traditions is very European, but Canada has some too. Four species, to be exact. In the true Canadian way, they parasitize pine trees.

They belong to a group called Dwarf mistletoe. These itty-bitty plants have 3mm branches and 4mm berries. They have done away with leaves, and have scales instead.

Arguably the coolest thing about dwarf mistletoe is that they spread their seeds by shooting them onto a neighboring branch. As the fruit ripens, pressure builds up until KABOOM! The fruit explodes and the seeds fly out at high speed. If these sticky bullets are lucky, they’ll hit a branch and stick there.

I could see why this isn’t a popular plant to kiss under. Sticky seeds in your up-do simply isn’t sexy.

Mythic origins

Mistletoe is part of a dastardly deed in Norse mythology. Photo by Don Meliton. The death of Balder. CC. https://flic.kr/p/3QsKqv

Mistletoe is part of a dastardly deed in Norse mythology. Photo by Don Meliton. The death of Balder. CC. https://flic.kr/p/3QsKqv

 

Okay, so why do we kiss under these parasitic ‘dung’ plants in the first place?

The mistletoe’s story begins in Celtic Europe. Its evergreen leaves were seen as a symbol of magical power and rebirth, especially during the winter when mistletoe is one the only green things around. Druids used mistletoe in religious ceremonies as a cure-all and to bring good luck.

The mistletoe was also significant in German and Norse mythology, especially when it grew on sacred oak trees. Mistletoe was believed to bring happiness, safety and good luck, as long as it didn’t touch the ground.

Mistletoe plays a starring role in the Norse myth of Baldur’s murder. Baldur was immortal because his mother made everything on earth promise not to hurt him. Some would call that helicopter parenting. She missed the mistletoe, because what could it do? Shoot berries at him?

But Loki, the trickster, made a spear out of mistletoe and tricked another god into killing Baldur with it. Some myths say the mistletoe’s white berries are his mother’s tears. Others say that the gods decided that after this tragic event the mistletoe would bring love instead of death.

As a result, when Scandinavian warriors met an enemy under a mistletoe, it was customary to lay down their weapons for the day. It’s a far cry from kissing, but not killing each other is the first step.

Norse mythology and traditions were adopted by the French and English, who started using mistletoe as a holiday decoration.

Modern-day mistletoe tradition. Photo by Will Folsom. Mistletoe. CC. https://flic.kr/p/b1cZYH

Modern-day mistletoe tradition. Photo by Will Folsom. Mistletoe. CC. https://flic.kr/p/b1cZYH

Reportedly the kissing thing finally happened in England, and was later imported to North America. In some circles kissing under a mistletoe was thought to always lead to marriage, so you had to be careful who you kissed!

Special powers

In Celtic traditions mistletoe was a cure-all. Some groups in Europe used it as an aphrodisiac and to boost fertility. Confusingly, others used it as a contraceptive.

Remember those dwarf mistletoe in Canada? Some indigenous groups in western Canada boiled and ate the berries. They also made a contraceptive tea out of the scaly leaves.

Beliefs about mistletoe’s healing powers continue to this day. Since 1916 mistletoe has been used as an alternative cancer treatment. The poisonous chemicals in the berries were thought to stimulate the immune system and help it fight off cancer.

No clinical trials have proven that mistletoe can cure cancer. That doesn’t change the fact that it is one of the most widely used unconventional cancer treatments in Europe.

There you have it, some interesting facts about mistletoe to share at your next holiday party. See if you can spot any in the trees this winter.

 

References

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/257150/haustorium

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/385828/mistletoe

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/174870/dwarf-mistletoe

http://kids.britannica.com/comptons/article-9275872/mistletoe

http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/mistletoe/

http://thisisafrica.me/trevor-noah-turns-african-stereotypes-america/

http://okeechobee.ifas.ufl.edu/News%20columns/Mistletoe.htm

http://nassau.ifas.ufl.edu/horticulture/gardentalk/pests.html#mistletoe

http://okeechobee.ifas.ufl.edu/News%20columns/Holly.Holidays.htm

http://www.apsnet.org/edcenter/intropp/lessons/miscellaneous/Pages/Dwarfmistletoes.aspx

(lots of good photos)

http://esrd.alberta.ca/lands-forests/forest-health/forest-pests/common-tree-insects-diseases/dwarf-mistletoe.aspx

http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/complementaryandalternativemedicine/herbsvitaminsandminerals/mistletoe

A berry by any other name would taste as sweet: Sneaky Saskatoons

Saskatoons, juneberry, bilberry, wild-plum...why does this tasty berry have so many names? Photo by John Freeland, Saskatoon Berries, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/john_f/5992290371/

Saskatoons, juneberry, bilberry, wild-plum…why does this tasty berry have so many names? Photo by John Freeland, Saskatoon Berries, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/john_f/5992290371/

Okay, get ready for a rant. A rant against common names. Common names are the handles most people use to describe plants and animals, like daisy or robin. Scientists prefer to use Latin names like Bellis perennis and Turdus migratorius. I think you’ll understand why in a second.

But before I rant, I need to tell you a story.

A few weeks ago I wrote about strawberries. Strangely enough, then I wanted to eat strawberries. And not imported ones from California. I wanted local strawberries fresh off the bush that still had bugs on them. So I ended up at a U-pick farm outside Shawinigan, Quebec.

To my great disappointment, there were no strawberries to be found! They had all been picked the previous day by hungry customers. However, the owner told us (in French, bien sûr) that “les amélanches” were ready for picking, and urged us to try one from her basket. Cautiously, we popped one of the blue-purple berries in our mouths. We were not disappointed. Whatever these berries were, they tasted like sweet blueberries and had a great texture. Soon we were ripping them (carefully) off the 7-foot tall bushes. Some of the berries even ended up in our buckets. Compared to picking raspberries and strawberries, picking these was a breeze! But what the heck were they?

I turned to the internet for an answer. It turns out that “les amélanches” are Saskatoon berries. Before my berry-picking experience, I had never encountered raw Saskatoon berries. The most common uses are baked in pies and pastries, or made into jams and syrups. I can attest that Saskatoon berry syrup on pancakes is darn delicious. But the raw berries are even better!

As I shared my divine berry picking experience on Facebook, I discovered out that many other people had picked Saskatoon berries, but under a different name. It was hard to talk about the berries, because everyone called them something different! What was going on?

As it turns out, Saskatoon berries go by many different names. Serviceberry, sarvisberry, shadbush, juneberry, bilberry, wild-plum and (my personal favorite) chuckley pear! Whew! That’s a lot of names to go on a passport! And kind of ridiculous if you ask me. Do I have to memorize all of these common names just to have an intelligent conversation about berry picking?

Sasktaoon Berries chillin' on a bush. Photo by John Freeland, Saskatoon Berries, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/john_f/5992849320/

Sasktaoon Berries chillin’ on a bush. Photo by John Freeland, Saskatoon Berries, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/john_f/5992849320/

In Latin, the plant is called Amelanchier alnifolia. One name. Okay, a complicated name with lots of vowels, but still easier than memorizing 13 different common names. It was this problem of too many names that inspired Carl Linnaeus to give every organism a single universal name. And that’s just what he did. Now scientists all around the world can talk about Amelanchier alnifolia without being confused. It’s called the Latin name. Or scientific name. Or binomen. Okay, that’s a little ironic.

Where did all these names for Saskatoon berry come from, anyway? Well, they’re found from BC to Western Ontario and also in the Yukon. The different populations of people who lived in these areas probably ‘discovered’ them independently and named them different things.

Speaking of names, there is a city in Saskatchewan named Saskatoon. So Saskatoon berries were named after the city, right? Wrong! The city was actually named after the berry. Apparently there were oodles of bushes in that area. Yum yum yum! The name ‘Saskatoon’ is probably an English mangling of the Blackfoot or Cree name.

I wished I lived in a city named Strawberry. Or Raspberry, for that matter.

Okay, thus ends my rant against common names. They are great in most cases, but if you want to be precise, the scientific name is the way to go.

Want to learn more about the mysterious Saskatoon berry? More history, facts and revelations to come next week!

References
http://saskatoonberrycouncil.com/sbcc/about-sbcc/processing.php
http://saskatoonberrycouncil.com/sbcc/health.php
http://www.for.gov.bc.ca/rsi/fnb/saskatoon.pdf
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/saskatoon-berry/
http://www.gov.mb.ca/agriculture/crops/production/fruit-crops/saskatoon-berries.html
http://cwf-fcf.org/en/discover-wildlife/flora-fauna/flora/serviceberries.html
http://saskatoonberrycouncil.com/sbcc/about-sbcc/history.php

6 things I didn’t know about strawberries

Behind that red juiciness lurks hidden secrets. Strawberry. Photo by Vladimir Fishmen, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/117611265@N05/13537327374/

Behind that red juiciness lurks hidden secrets. Strawberry. Photo by Vladimir Fishmen, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/117611265@N05/13537327374/

It’s strawberry season in Ontario, and you know what that means: strawberry shortcake, muffins, trifles, and my personal favorite, spinach salad with strawberries!

Growing up it was my job to gather the strawberries from our small patch in the backyard. We never had many berries, as the squirrels got there before we did! To celebrate my largest harvest I decided to take initiative…and wash them in the kiddie pool. The one my brother and I had recently vacated. Not one of my best decisions. My mother was not impressed with the pool’s sanitary conditions, so I had to donate my beautiful strawberries to our local Feed the Birds and Squirrels Fund. Sigh.

In spite of this disappointment, my passion for eating strawberries only grew. Realizing I know very little about strawberries other than the fact that they are delicious, I decided to do a bit of research. I came up with the following list of reasons why strawberries are awesome.

1. A strawberry is not a berry

Strawberries aren't berries, but a banana is. Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt, Pink Sherbert Photography, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/pinksherbet/4853010035/

Strawberries aren’t berries, but a banana is. Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt, Pink Sherbert Photography, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/pinksherbet/4853010035/

Mind blown! In botanical terms (and I love botanical terms), berries are fleshy fruit that develop from a single ovary. Think blueberries, tomatoes, bananas, avocados, and even pumpkins. Real berries have seeds on the inside. Strawberries have seeds on the outside. Oops.

2. A strawberry is not even a fruit

Whaa? This is getting ridiculous. Of course strawberries are fruit, it says so in the food guide! Not according to botanists. They consider strawberries to be an accessory, or compound fruit. The green spots we call ‘seeds’, but botanists call ‘achenes’, are the real fruit. Each of these 100 mini-fruits must be pollinated separately.

The red stuff we like to munch on is the receptacle, the part of the flower that supports all of its sexual organs. When you think about it, fruit is just an assembly of plant lady bits. Maybe not a topic to bring up at the dinner table.

If you don’t believe me, these photos of developing strawberries might help:

Close-up of the hundreds of achenes and their leftover pistils. Each one has a seed inside. Photo by Stephen Shellard IMG_2771 CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/stephen_shellard/8816417025/

Close-up of the hundreds of achenes and their leftover pistils. Each one has a seed inside. Photo by Stephen Shellard IMG_2771 CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/stephen_shellard/8816417025/

The receptacle in this image seems to be doing it's own thing. Photo by Jessie Hirsch, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/jhirsch/3626022615/

The receptacle in this image seems to be doing it’s own thing. Photo by Jessie Hirsch, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/jhirsch/3626022615/

Photo by Jessie Hirsch, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/jhirsch/3626022615/

3. Attack of the clones!

Runners shooting out from the mother plant. Photo by Colleen Ellse CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/colleen_ellse/3514453376/

Runners shooting out from the mother plant. Photo by Colleen Ellse CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/colleen_ellse/3514453376/

Strawberries have strange sex lives. The flowers are hermaphroditic and pollinate themselves. However, for a beautiful, well-formed receptacle, they need bees to help out.

Strawberries don’t normally reproduce using seeds. Instead, they reproduce asexually. The mother plant sends out runners that set down roots, creating daughter ‘clones’. The clones are genetically identical to the mother plant.

Farmers who want big berries cut off the clones, leaving the mother plant more energy to produce the fruit. The fewer runners, the bigger the berries. Farmers who grow berries for processing let a few runners go, and their berries are smaller. But if they’re being mashed into jam, size doesn’t matter! About 75% of strawberry crop is processed to make frozen strawberries, jams and yogurts. Only 25% is sold fresh.

4. Have a heart!

The elusive double strawberry. Photo by Petra Chill Mimi, stawb CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/chillmimi/7879135588/

The elusive double strawberry. Photo by Petra Chill Mimi, stawb CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/chillmimi/7879135588/

In many Western cultures, the heart-shaped strawberry symbolized love, passion and purity. For the Romans it was a symbol of Venus, Goddess of Love.

Next time you go into a Medieval church, look up, waaaay up, and you might see strawberries at the tops of the pillars. Stone masons put them there as a symbol of purity and perfection. In Shakespeare’s play Othello, Othello gives his wife Desdemonda a handkerchief embroidered with strawberries, which symbolize her purity.

According to one legend, if you share a ‘double strawberry’ (those ginormous strawberries where it looks like two have grown together) with someone, the two of you will fall in love. Aww. Nice thought, but there’s no way I’m sharing my strawberries! Not only are they expensive, but want all the health benefits all to myself.

5. Marvelous Medicine

The Ancient Romans believed strawberry fruits and leaves had many medical uses, such as a treatment for kidney stones, fevers, liver problems, throat infections, bad breath and fainting.

Maybe they weren’t far off. Today we know that strawberries contain antioxidants (like vitamin C, Folate) that prevent cancer. Eating them daily has been shown to reduce cancer cell growth. They also have omega-3 fatty acids. Fat in strawberries, who knew? They contain Vitamin K, which is important for bone health and most people don’t get enough of it. They also contain iodine, a chemical that kick-starts the thyroid, your body’s powerhouse. The acid in strawberries also whitens teeth and heals the gums. Huh, maybe the Romans were right about bad breath!

Eating 8 strawberries will give you 160% of daily your vitamin C. By weight, that’s more than oranges. No wonder they are one of the world’s most popular fruits!

6. What’s in a name?

Why strawberry? In English, they used to be called strewberries, because the low-hanging fruit appear to be ‘strewn’ along the ground. Once farmers started bringing these delicate fruit to market packed in straw, the name was changed to strawberry. But you can use strewberry if you really want to. Happy strawberry eating and picking!

References
http://www.koppert.com/pollination/fruit-crops/crops/detail/strawberry/
http://ontarioberries.com/site/berry-info/strawberries.html
http://urbanext.illinois.edu/strawberries/history.cfm
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/568585/strawberry
http://www.agf.gov.bc.ca/aboutind/products/plant/strawberry.htm
http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/fresh-fruits-and-vegetables/quality-inspection/fruit-inspection-manuals/strawberries/eng/1303696857326/1303696941051
http://www.foodland.gov.on.ca/english/fruits/strawberries/index.html
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/cultivated-berries/
http://www.chpcanada.ca/en/blog/health-benefits-strawberries

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