Book Review: The Singapore Mistletoe Story: An Expose of a Botanical Marvel

Book Review:
The Singapore Mistletoe Story: An Expose of a Botanical Marvel
By Francis Lim L K

A well-known Christmas custom is to hang a sprig of the mistletoe plant above the door frame at the house entrance. A man and a woman who meet under it were obliged to kiss and a fruit is plucked from the sprig until all the berries have been exhausted and then the privilege ceases.

Besides this playful custom, what else do we know about mistletoes?

Mistletoes are, in fact, semi-parasitic plants that attach themselves to the branches of a tree or shrub and they absorb water and nutrients via a structure called a haustorium which penetrates the tissues of the host plant. However, they have green leaves that allow them to photosynthesise their own food.Sounds scary? This is a reason why horticulturists and arborists view mistletoes as undesirable plants as their presence is thought to be detrimental to the health of the host plants. Depending on the size and health of the host plant, mistletoes can stunt or kill the former. Hence, they are often systematically pruned away.

Yet, these plants can be fascinating, as Francis Lim, who previously worked in the Singapore Zoological Gardens, details in his book, The Singapore Mistletoe Story: An Expose of a Botanical Marvel, the first of its kind on this often misunderstood group of plants. For his research for the book, he has travelled all over Singapore, including offshore islands, to document our native mistletoe species.

Legends, folklore and their medicinal uses, as well as interesting facts are covered in the book. Did you know there is a mistletoe which does not have leaves? Francis also details the various species that can still be found in Singapore and where the reader can go to find them.

More importantly, Francis also discusses the roles these plants play in the natural environment and explains why we should not remove them, but trim when the growth of the mistletoes becomes overly excessive  - Mistletoes are important bird plants as our feathered friends feast on their fruits and nectar. Leaves of certain mistletoe species are food for caterpillars and their flowers produce nectar for butterflies.

Francis' book is a good read for students and anyone who is interested in Singapore's biodiversity. However, it is a must-read for local horticulturists and arborists who want to create gardens that not only look good and are sustainable, but also one that can enrich the biodiversity in our urban environment.

Finally, the author also shared how one can harvest and press plant material for display and reference. I think this method can also be used to prepare plant material for making Christmas cards (but for local distribution only as some countries are sticky about 'foreign' plant materials in their mail!).

By Dr Wilson Wong

The Singapore Mistletoe Story: An Expose of a Botanical Marvel retails at $23.54 at major bookstores and copies are available for browsing at the Library of Botany and Horticulture at the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

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