Saturday, July 3, 2010

Jointed Mistletoe

Viscum articulatum

This mistletoe at Franke scrub is fruiting heavily at present.
It’s a fascinating plant. While it can grow directly on trees, its favourite hosts are other mistletoes. In this case it is growing on Lucas’s mistletoe Amyema lucasii, (Family: LORANTHACEAE) which is growing on a leopard ash, Flindersia collina.

What you see in this photo are the bright green leaves of the leopard ash in the lower part of the picture, the blue-green-leaves of Lucas’s mistletoe in the central and upper section, and the yellow-green branchlets of three plants of jointed mistletoe surround the much larger Lucas’s mistletoe.

Lucas’s mistletoe is in the Loranthaceae, a family with edible fruits that originated on Gondwana. Its various members are still largely restricted to the continents which resulted from the break-up of that ancient super-continent.
The jointed mistletoe, on the other hand, is in the Viscaceae, a family with worldwide distribution. It is quite unrelated to the Loranthaceae, and evolved the mistletoe growth habit quite independently.
The Viscaceae include the classic British mistletoe, Viscum album, of “kissing under at Christmas-time” fame. Our local species, V. articulatum shows its resemblance to V. album, and the various other Viscum species worldwide, but is unusual in being leafless. The white winter fruits of the traditional Christmas mistletoe are an important part of their value as decorations. Our local also fruits in winter, but of course here in the southern hemisphere that means it does it in mid-year .
Viscum articulatum is also native in Asia, where it known as “crabs legs”, and is dried and used in traditional medicine. It is probably not a very safe one, so shouldn’t be experimented with at home.
The fruits of all Viscum species have a reputation for being poisonous, and Wikipedia, informs us that eating them causes “acute gastrointestinal problems including stomach pain, and diarrhea along with low pulse”. Blurred vision and vomiting are other effects reported elsewhere. One of the English Christmas traditions was that a girl who was kissed under the mistletoe would pick and eat a berry for each kiss. A girl who made a habit of hanging around hopefully under the mistletoe could get to eat a few fruits, presumably with no ill effects, since the custom persisted. I wonder whether the English mistletoe species - England’s only mistletoe Viscum album - has a milder effect than other Viscum species? Whatever, the case, nobody should experiment with eating the fruits of our local species!
We can enjoy it as an interesting plant, however, and it certainly provides ornamental foliage contrast in the canopy of the tree pictured.

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