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A very ‘berry’ Christmas

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Posted: Wednesday 19th December 2018 by WildBlog

(c) Zsuzsanna Bird

By Elisabeth Winkler, Avon Wildlife Trust Communications Assistant

‘Tis the season to get jolly with mistletoe, ivy and holly. Native to Britain and most of Europe, these evergreens have mystical reputations. Plants that stay green symbolise new life in barren midwinter. Inside a human home, their glossy leaves reflect fire or candlelight. These traditional Christmas evergreens also bring unique benefits to wildlife, especially birds.

Holly symbolises the ruler of winter in Celtic folklore. In Christianity, its red berries and spiky leaves symbolise Jesus’s blood on a crown of thorns.
Holly forms barriers of great thickness, making it an invaluable hedge plant. Birds take refuge in holly, its prickly leaves providing protection from predators.

While holly berries are poisonous to people and pets, they are food for the many birds who tough out the winter without migrating, such as thrushes and blackbirds. Nature has designed berries to be enticing so birds eat the fruit and spread its seeds. The birds avoid holly berries until December when frost or freeze have softened them. Holly bushes can be fiercely protected by birds such as Mistle thrush, Redwing or Fieldfare, protecting their food stock.

Apart from its starring role at Christmas, ivy has a bad rap, accused of harming trees or houses. Yet ivy is another vital food in wildlife’s winter larder.
Ivy is an essential part of the food chain because it provides food for insects, which, in their turn, are food for birds. In autumn, ivy’s yellow-green flowers produce high-quality (49% sugar) nectar and pollen for autumn insects such as honey bees, hornets and Red Admiral butterflies. A newcomer to these isles since it arrived from the continent in the 1990s, the ivy bee feeds exclusively on the nectar of ivy flowers.

Ivy’s black berries ripen in late winter providing food for birds, while its foliage is shelter for hibernating insects such as the Brimstone butterflies, as well as bats and birds.

Unlike most plants, the ivy grows towards the shade in search of a shadow cast by tree or wall so that its vine can entwine around it.
Its feminine tendrils are associated with fertility, its garlands were said to adorn ancient Roman gods, and, in folklore medicine, were used to heal ailing farm animals.

Is it any wonder mistletoe has a supernatural reputation? Tucked out-of-sight in summer, it appears as if by magic in the bare canopies of winter. Mistletoe has no roots planted in the soil because it is a parasite, gaining all its nutrients from its host tree. But its positive benefits to wildlife outweigh any risks; so much so, it is known as a keystone species.

Mistletoe not only provides berries as vital mid-winter food, it has other functions. By weakening or killing its tree host, mistletoe enables its trunk and branches to become crowded with insects which in turn provide bird food. Mistletoe’s many leaves fall to the woodland bed, providing homes for insects, and further food for the birds.

Mistletoe was, according to Pliny the Roman naturalist, worshipped by the Druids. In different parts of Europe, sprigs of mistletoe were believed to fertilise barren cattle, or help a woman conceive. Known as the golden bough, it symbolises both peace and fertility. We keep this custom this very day, kissing under the mistletoe at Christmas.

Look for thrushes at Folly Farm nature reserve, mistletoe in the high branches of poplars at Clapton Moor and ivy in city gardens.

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