The oldest mistletoe surviving today is Nuytsia floribunda,
found in Western Australia. It’s actually known as the
Christmas tree because it blooms so dramatically in summer. The showy orange flowers have been likened to ‘a bushfire without smoke’.
It's a local legend for another reason too...
This sap-sucker is one of two species that attaches itself to the underground roots of other plants. It has blades on its roots sharp enough to break skin and slice through underground cables!
"When they were running the first telephone lines from Perth to Geraldton across the sandplains where Nuytsia
grows, they kept breaking and they had no idea why," said Dr Barrett.
A bit of digging quickly revealed that the beloved Christmas tree was mistakingly attaching itself to the telephone cables in search of a host with nutrients and water.
runs into a root (or cable) it forms a collar of tissue around it that resembles a swollen wedding ring, and a hydraulically operated blade forms inside that," said Dr Barrett.
This mistletoe's alarming culinary habits are also referred to in Vincent Serventy’s book Dryandra: The Story of an Australian Forest.
In the early 60’s the mistletoe also targeted a space tracking station in Western Australia which was connected by underground cables.
Serventy wrote, ‘All went well until six months later. Somewhere the cables had short-circuited. The engineer raised the cable and found encircling it rings of white flesh.’
Serventy also jokes that Nuytsia
would have suffered ‘some disgust, one imagines, as there would be little nourishment in those messages from outer space’.
Aboriginal culture and the condition of country
Mistletoe is most popularly known through its place in ancient legends and mythology, and its widespread use in folk medicine. Given it calls Australia home, it is also important to many Aboriginal people.
"For some Aboriginal people, mistletoe was primarily a source of food because their sticky fruits are sweet. The medical properties of particular species were even used to treat common colds," said Dr Barrett.
"Mistletoe is is also very soft-stemmed and you can peel back its layers like an onion. This means they are very fire-sensitive and they act as an important indicator for the condition of country to Aboriginal people," said Dr Barrett.
The Western Australian Christmas tree is particularly sacred to the Noongar Aboriginal people in Perth because it is a transit point for dead spirits and is intimately connected to the afterlife.
A Noongar elder explains that ‘A spirit sits on the tree until it flowers. Then the spirit moves on to the spirit world in conjunction with easterly winds and fire, which take the spirit out over the sea.’