Local author and naturalist Bob Gilbert writes:
It is my regular habit, when walking about Poplar, to look out for whatever I can in the way of local wildlife; the Long-tailed Tits that feed in the lime trees, the Kestrel that occasionally haunts the Brownfield Estate or the Grey Sallows that spring up in municipal flower beds. It was in this way, whilst en route to Chrisp Street market a few weeks ago, that I spotted a bunch of Mistletoe (Viscum album) growing high in the branches of a maple set in a children’s playground on the Brownfield Estate (just visible near the top right in the photo below). I am familiar with Mistletoe to the west of London, around Hampton Court and in the vicinity of Heathrow, and even more in the western counties of Gloucestershire and Herefordshire, which are the heartland of this species, but not here in Poplar – or anywhere else in the East End for that matter – and it has since been confirmed that this is the first record for Tower Hamlets.
There is something particularly exciting about the Mistletoe for a whole number of reasons. It is an evergreen plant that becomes especially visible when the leaves drop from its deciduous host tree, and it is, of course, a parasite (or, technically, a hemi-parasite), its root penetrating the branches and the plant deriving much of its nutrient from the tree on which it is found. It is said to be spread in the droppings of birds that have fed upon its berries, or when they attempt to wipe its sticky seeds from their bills. It is this stickiness, incidentally, which gives the plant its specific name of Viscum. For their role in its spread, the Mistle Thrush is even named after it but, in reality, it seems to be more closely related to the Blackcap, which loves to feed on its white berries. We have a pair of Mistle Thrushes nesting beneath the Balfron Tower, and a Blackcap spent much of last year in the nearby churchyard of All Saints, so I like to think that one of them may have brought the plant to us from berries stolen from someone’s market-bought sprig.
The Mistletoe is one of the last of the plants whose one-time magical associations still survive in the popular mind. It was supposed to be an antidote to poison, to open locks, to serve as an aphrodisiac and even to cure epilepsy but most of all it is associated with Christmas and with kissing. The Druidic associations of mistletoe were largely an 18th century invention, and based on a single passage from Pliny, but it seems very likely that Mistletoe was, nonetheless, the basis of some form of fertility ritual and that this survives, albeit in sanitised form, in the custom of kissing beneath it.
Parasitical, magical and evergreen; it is a great plant to have growing among us and it seemed particularly appropriate that I first spotted it just as we approached the start of the Christmas season.
Photos of the Mistletoe on the Brownfield Estate in Poplar by John Archer
Bob’s book Ghost Trees – Nature and People in a London Parish, telling the story of Poplar parish through the generations of trees that have been found there, has recently been published by Saraband.