Image copyright: Lytton John Musselman
Tapinanthus oleifolius is one of the best known of the evergreen half-parasitic shrubs growing on other trees and shrubs. The sticky seeds are deposited by birds on the bark of branches and stems where they germinate rapidly. The developing plant attaches itself to the host by means of a specialized root-like structure known as a haustorium.
This secretive, plant has an epiphytic habit. It only discloses its presence by the fallen flowers and fruits found on the ground. It is often overlooked in trees as it blends in well with the leaves of the tree itself. It is best observed in winter when trees have few or no leaves. It is a tall shrub up to 1 m high with a smooth, grey to brownish and densely, but inconspicuously lenticellate stem. Leaves are mostly opposite and with a wide variation in size (Polhill & Wiens 1988). The petiole (leaf stalk) is 2-13 mm long to almost absent. The inflorescence consists of one to several flowered umbels ; the peduncle (inflorescence stalk) is 1-4 mm long and the pedicel (flower stalk) is 0.5-2.0 mm long.
The corolla-tube is 35-45 mm long, red with whitish spots, head of buds yellowish or greenish white, darkening, constricted 3-5 mm above and the lobes are 9-10 mm long. The stamens are red, anthers 2.5-3.0 mm long. The fruit is a berry, ellipsoid, 8-9 x 5-7 mm, smooth and red with a short, persistent red, hairless calyx.
Distribution and Habitat
The mistletoe is widespread in the drier parts of southern Africa throughout Namibia, Free State, Botswana, Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Limpopo and North-West provinces. It is found growing on numerous and diverse hosts such as species of Acacia, Aloe, Combretum, Diospyros, Maytenus, Melianthus, Rhus and Ziziphus. It is mostly adapted to a drier habitat.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
Tapinanthus oleifolius has elliptic leaves resembling those of the olive; this gave rise to the name of the species: olei -meaning of the olive, and - folius meaning leaved. The closed red flowers look like a bundle of vertical matches: red with a whitish tip. The common name of the plant is therefore vuurhoutjie or lighting match. The Afrikaans name voëlent refers to its method of seed dispersal by birds. Another species is Tapinanthus rubromarginatus
The plant is a host to birds since it is one of the few plants that flower in winter. The flower is very sensitive to touching. It opens quickly and releases pollen, which lands on the head of the pollinators. It is very interesting how self-pollination is prevented: the style of the ovary moves to one side and ensures maximum exposure to the next pollinator to facilitate cross-pollination. The seeds stick to the bills and legs of birds and are then wiped onto the bark of other trees where seed germination takes place. The fact that it is one of the few plants to flower in winter makes it extremely valuable in the ecosystem as a provider of nectar.
Uses and cultural aspects
The plant is eaten by browsers, especially giraffes because it usually grows high up in trees. There is a superstition that the mixture of the plant with Capparis tomentosa and ground monkey nuts and fat can stop the rain if smeared onto a forked stick and pointed upwards. The sticky gum from the berries is used to catch birds; the gum is rolled on a grass culm at a water hole or near a nest.
Growing Tapinanthus oleifolius
It is known to grow well on branches of various tree species. The seed is smeared onto the branch and the lobes of the cotyledon joined by the radicle emerge rapidly in the presence of sunlight, and the parasite attaches itself to its host plant.
References and further reading
- Polhill, R.M. & Wiens D. 1998. Mistletoes of Africa. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
- Visser, J. 1981. South African parasitic flowering plants. Juta, Johannesburg.
National Herbarium (Pretoria )