A PICNIC UNDER THE MISTLETOE

We regularly see mistletoebirds (Dicaeum Hirundinaceum) around the house and around the hills.  They’re a flowerpecker with a taste for mistletoes.

Mistletoebird (Dicaeum Hirundinaceum) photo by Leo from iNaturalist.org

Mistletoebird (Dicaeum Hirundinaceum) photo by Leo from iNaturalist.org

Mistletoes grow all over the world, not just at Christmas for romantic kissing purposes. Unlike the area north of us, near Lake Burrinjuck, however, our eucalypts have few mistletoes.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe they’re too widely spaced.  It’s probably for the best given all the other stresses on them.  Parasitic mistletoes are a big drag on a host tree’s resources.

Eucalypt with mistletoe, Wee Jasper Road near Yass

Eucalypt with many  mistletoes, Wee Jasper Road near Yass

It’s puzzled me what the mistletoebirds are eating around here.

Meanwhile, Lesley Peden and I were jolting around the paddocks looking at the sites I want to use for tree-planting this year.  We finished off with a picnic by Oakey Creek and some delicious blackberry picking.Blackerries closeup

Regrowth among blackberries Lesley PedenI wanted to check out the growth of some shrubs where they’ve been protected from sheep by blackberry brambles.

I like the idea of using natural regeneration where we can, especially on a slope that’s almost vertical.

We’ve gained thirty or forty black wattles and tea-trees this way.   Unfortunately, there’s also an area that used to have a good grove of tea-trees and bursaria that’s been mostly swamped with brambles.

So, a few blackberries, maybe helpful, for a while.  Too many blackberries, a big problem.

The blackberries got away in the previous decade and have been spreading right across the slope.  Frank has worked hard in the last couple of years to kill them with sprays, but many are unreachable even with the 250 metre self-retracting hose unit.  Fifty loads of backpack spraying are what’s needed, but no-one’s keen to balance on the sheep tracks with fifteen kilos of poison hanging from their shoulders.

Anyway, there were enough sort-of accessible unsprayed blackberries to pick a bowlful and some for snacking.  Blackberries Lesley and Jack picking The girls ranged far and wide looking for pickable fruit.  “Like mountain goats,” they said.Blackberries girls on steep hill

While we were picnicking, Lesley pointed out that the lovely green grass around us was mostly new shoots of native microlaena (weeping grass), which you can identify by the small pinch in the tips.  When there are so many weeds this year, it was heartening to see desirable grass.  Last February, Oakey creek was dry and the ground was bare dust.Oakey Creek Jan 2015

Lesley also pointed out tiny pink fruit hanging in the casuarina trees along the creek.  Lesley Peden examining misteltoe

At first we wondered if it was casuarina fruit, which apparently is edible if roasted.  The EattheWeeds site also lists casuarina gum and red sap as edible.

female with seeds

female casuarina with seeds

I hadn’t even been aware that river casuarinas (casuarina cunninghamiana) have male and female forms.  Presumably that’s why they were given the common names “She-oak” and “Bull-oak”, though where the oak idea came in I’ve got no idea.   The British got pretty desperate sometimes when faced with strange Australian fauna and flora.

male with pollen

male  casuarina with pollen

When I looked it up, it turned out casuarinas are also nitrogen-fixing, break up compacted soil, and are particularly good for stabilizing watercourses. The timber was much in demand in the 19th Century for kilns because it burns so hot and fast.  The needle-shaped leaves (actually branchlets) are edible to grazing animals, which is why the sheep have trimmed the trees so neatly.  The pretty Latin name comes from the drooping feathery needles that looked, to someone, a bit like cassowary feathers.

Frank accuses them of sucking all the water out of the creek in dry summers.

Anyway, when we looked at the trees, the “casuarina” fruit was hanging on both males and females.

Then it clicked that mistletoe was mimicking the casuarina needles.

Mistletoe is a weird parasitic plant that drops from the sky, (all right, from a bird’s rear end) onto a tree branch and grows.  As it grows it plugs into the tree’s food system and steals nutrients and water.  In Australia, many mistletoes mimic their host plant.

Initially I thought Bryan Barlow was saying that the same mistletoe seed landing on a broad leaved eucalypt will have broad leaves, and on a narrow-leafed acacia, will be a narrow-leafed parasite.  But it’s a bit slower than that – different species have adapted to certain shapes that mimic their hosts, and they can get away with hiding on a few fairlly similar species such as narrow leaf acacias and casuarinas.  They hide because they’re edible, and prefer not to be eaten.   There’s a fantastic site about amazing mistletoes here.

Mistletoe cluster live in casuarinas 2

Mistletoe “needles ” centre, casuarina needles top left

Once you understood,  you could see the thicker, greyer, mistletoe needles and the distinctive curving mistletoe twig clusters among the greener, straighter casuarina needles.  “Amyema cambagei” Lesley announced.
mistletoe berries closeupmistletoe berries closeup in fingers

The fruit was tiny and pink, a little like miniature breasts too small even for Barbie dolls.  That thought put me off eating them for a few seconds, but then I got over it.  They were sweet, like a  lychee in flavor.

Mistletoe picking Jack, Maia, Sarah“Mum could survive anywhere living off the land” said Lesley’s daughter Maia.

We ate some, then left the rest for the mistletoebirds.

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2 comments

  1. The mistletoe on the farms out at Roma used to fascinate me. They were always too high for me to examine though. The mimicking action of this plant was news to me. How interesting! I’m not sure I would have been game to try those fruit but now that you have I am very keen. I love the taste of lychees. Thanks for this very interesting post.

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