Thursday, 17 December 2015

Christmas Science - Kiss me under the Parasite

The not-so-romantic truth behind the sprigs of mistletoe hanging from the ceiling.

Day two of for my Christmas science and it's another botanical one. I have no idea where the tradition of hanging mistletoe up came from, nor what the deal with snogging people under it is about - I shall leave you to hunt the internet for that one. However, from a scientific perspective it is not the most romantic of plants.

The mistletoe plant (Viscum album), while associated with kissing and romance in our homes is actually a parasitic organism that produces a poisonous alkaloid in the flesh of its berries. Tyramine in the berries can cause nausea and diarrhoea in humans, although birds seem to be immune to its effects. When the fruit is eaten by birds, the seeds coated in gloopy sap stick the birds beaks. The birds then wipe their beaks on a convenient bit of branch and when the seed germinates it invades the tissue of the tree and starts a new parasitic plant. How romantic...

Want more? There is a whole book waiting for you full of the Science of Everyday Life.

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Science TV Presenter, live show performer, writer, strange prop builder and all round Science Bloke. All opinions expressed are mine alone. Not the BBC's, just mine.