Our nature column is written by Corinna Hoptroff, a retired health lecturer who has kept a keen interest in the natural world since she was a young girl. She and her husband Charlie frequently go for walks around Stamford but rarely get as far as they would like, as they have their heads down inspecting interesting beetles or plants.
Corinna, who lives in Conduit Road, Stamford, hopes to share her enthusiasm with readers. Each month she will give a glimpse of the kind of flora and fauna you can spot in your gardens and further afield.
December: festivities, frosts, and traditional plants at their best. The holly and the ivy, for example, sporting glossy green foliage can be admired in our parks and gardens, the ivy having spent autumn in flower feeding insects and other wildlife now has ripening purple berries for birds to eat.
One of the most distinctive of our seasonal favourites is the Mistletoe (Viscum album). As its Latin name implies it has white, waxy berries that are viscous in nature, adhering to the beaks of birds and to tree branches. Viscosity enables the berries to be distributed directly to trees further afield, either by the bird wiping its bill on the bark of the tree or depositing the berries in its droppings.
This is probably where the plant name originates: the old English word “mistiltan” means “dung twig”. Whichever way it happens, the bird is inadvertently placing the mistletoe seed in place for growth directly into the tree. The plant penetrates the tree to access its water supply but does not kill it. Mistletoe attaches itself to apple, lime, birch and sycamore, to name but a few, and grows in a distinctive ball shape.
This is what you can see when you look high up into the trees of Burghley park and other ancient woodland. Some of these “bowers” have been growing and multiplying for years and are at their most visible now that the trees are otherwise bare.
View them from a distance to appreciate their commanding presence. Much of the folklore and customs associated with mistletoe are still around today. Kissing under the mistletoe derives from the ancient Greek belief that the plant was a fertility symbol.
To the Norsemen, mistletoe represented peace and goodwill, synonymous with Christmas today. A bird with a link to our Christmas plant is the mistle thrush (Turdus viscivorus) which can be seen feeding now. It is so-named as it is partial to mistletoe berries. The mistle is not unlike the song thrush (Turdus philomelos) but is larger, and lighter in colour with bolder spots.
Unlike its cousin whose song is tuneful and varied, the mistle thrush song is a mournful piping. In folklore, the song was considered to herald bad weather, the bird being known as the “storm cock”. This thrush will jealously guard a whole tree against other contenders for its fruit, becoming quite spirited in its attempts to frighten them off.
Another member of the thrush family, the fieldfare (Turdus pilaris) can now be seen in our gardens where it comes to feed on berries when the weather is at its worst. Gardens adjacent to fields and hedgerows like Rutland Heights near Great Casterton, and bordering Baston’s open landscape, will have the best chance of attracting these winter visitors who feed on rowan, hips and haws.
Fieldfares travel in large flocks and often keep the company of the smaller redwing (Turdus iliacus), another thrush which can be recognised by a cream eyestripe and an orange-red flash beneath its wings.