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Why do we kiss under the mistletoe?

We delve into the festive traditions and mythology surrounding mistletoe.

Mistletoe, or Viscum album, is a curious plant. It is a ‘hemi-parasite’, meaning it grows on a host tree, from which it takes water and support. Don’t worry though, it causes very little, if any, damage to its host. In fact, it has real value to wildlife - six species of insect are specialist mistletoe feeders, including the rare mistletoe marble moth Celypha woodiana and mistletoe weevil Ixapion variegatum. 

It was often seen as a mystical plant because it seemed to appear from nowhere, with no roots, and stayed evergreen when its host tree dropped its leaves in winter. We now know that its seeds are germinated to its host tree by passing birds and its roots are entwined with its host tree. But this small plant must have seemed magical to people long ago.

The earliest account of mistletoe is from the Roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder. Writing in his Natural Histories in the first century AD, he described how Druids thought mistletoe taken from oak trees was sacred. Many modern Pagans still use mistletoe today.

However, mistletoe is seldom found on oaks. It is more likely to grow on trees such as apple, hawthorn, poplar, lime or conifers.

It is a festive tradition to hang up mistletoe around Christmas and New Year and plant a kiss on anyone you find yourself standing next to while beneath it. But why do we do this?

It is said the roots of this tradition stem from Norse mythology. According to legend, the Norse goddess of love and fertility, Frigg, made all living things promise not to harm her son Baldr because she wanted to protect him. However, she overlooked the mistletoe plant because it was so small. Baldr was then killed by an enemy using an arrow made from mistletoe. In some versions, Frigg’s tears land on the mistletoe and turn its berries to white which brings Baldr back from the dead. In gratitude, Frigg reverses the mistletoe’s bad reputation and kisses anyone who walks underneath it as a sign of gratitude.

It wasn’t until Victorian times that this tradition seems to become popular. It is said that a berry would be plucked for each kiss until all the berries were gone.

  • Why do we kiss under the mistletoe?, A hanging bough of mistletoe ,  creativecommons, Loadmaster (David R. Tribble).
    A hanging bough of mistletoe ,  creativecommons, Loadmaster (David R. Tribble).

Five tonnes of mistletoe are sold in the UK every year, most of which are imported from France. Much of the wild mistletoe in the UK grows in the west Midlands around the English/Welsh border. It is not very common in London but we do have some here at the Horniman, in our Gardens. Our boughs are high up in a tree on Meadow Field and our Gardeners are looking into growing them lower down on the trees so they are more visible.

Visit the Gardens and see what other plants you can spot.

Museum Club: Arts Award Project with Eliot Bank School

The Horniman offers a Museum Club for three different local primary schools. Eliot Bank School’s Museum Club spent last term working towards their Arts Award, Discover level. Learning Assistant, Lucy, writes about the group’s work over the term.

Arts Award encourages children and young people to explore and take part in different art forms, creating a log-book to document their work. The scheme was a perfect fit for our Museum Club format, so we decided to pilot Arts Award with them.

Inspired by both the Horniman’s Festival of Brazil summer season and the beautiful Gardens, we decided to create miniature gardens for the project. Over the course of ten weeks, the group grew their own flowers and herbs from seed with the help of our Gardener, Damien.

  • Museum Club: Arts Award Project with Eliot Bank School, Horniman Gardener, Damien, shows the students how to add plants to their miniature gardens.
    Horniman Gardener, Damien, shows the students how to add plants to their miniature gardens.

Sketching and taking inspiration from the different spaces in the Horniman Gardens, the group designed their own, scavenging for twigs and pebbles to incorporate into their designs.

  • Museum Club: Arts Award Project with Eliot Bank School, Students from Eliot School with their miniature gardens
    Students from Eliot School with their miniature gardens

The Festival of Brazil summer season presented a fantastic opportunity for the group to work with a visiting Brazilian artist to create bandeirinhas (bunting) and to find out about her work, and Brazil, first-hand. They also learnt about Rio’s Selaron Steps, designing patterns and creating colourful mosaics on their plant pots in response.

  • Museum Club: Arts Award Project with Eliot Bank School, Colourful mosaics were added to the plant pots
    Colourful mosaics were added to the plant pots

Finally, Helen our Librarian showed the group one of the Horniman’s rare books: a collection of cyanotypes created by the nineteenth century Botanist and Photographer Anna Atkins. The children were fascinated by her work and loved having the opportunity to see such a special object up-close.

  • Museum Club: Arts Award Project with Eliot Bank School, Students learnt about Brazilian bunting used in festivals, and made some of their own!
    Students learnt about Brazilian bunting used in festivals, and made some of their own!

Having learnt about Atkin’s work and the science behind her cyanotypes, the group created their own (despite the lack of sunshine!) using leaves from the plants they had grown. The following week, the children taught their families and friends how to make cyanotypes, making them together.

  • Museum Club: Arts Award Project with Eliot Bank School, Horniman Librarian, Helen, teaches the students about cyanotypes
    Horniman Librarian, Helen, teaches the students about cyanotypes

Their cyanotypes look fantastic and have contributed to a new book that is being added to the library’s collection!

The group loved taking part in the project, and we received lots of positive feedback from their teachers and families. 

Whilst requiring a lot more staff time than our usual Museum Club programme, the structure of Arts Award worked well for the group, giving them focus, motivation and a log-book to be very proud of. 

Finally, by presenting the group’s certificates in a school assembly, the project has inspired more children to join the club this year!’

Animal in Focus: Flymo and Gizmo

Every month, the Animal Keepers introduce you to a member of their extended family. This month its double trouble as it’s all about Flymo and Gizmo, our pygmy goats.

The terrible twosome are a miniature breed of domestic goat, originating from the Cameroon Valley of West Africa. The breed was created by cross breeding West African Dwarf Goats and Nigerian Dwarf Goats.

  • Animal in Focus: Flymo and Gizmo, Flymo and Gizmo, the Animal Walk pygmy goats.
    Flymo and Gizmo, the Animal Walk pygmy goats.

Pygmy goats are classified as a multi-purpose animal, as they have a variety of uses. They were originally imported for use in petting zoos, and quickly gained popularity as pets and companion animals for hobbyists and are very popular as show animals. Pygmy goats are also used for meat, milk and skin.

Goats have long held a reputation for being animal garbage disposals, but there is much more to them than just bottomless stomachs. New research has shown that goats are just as intelligent as dogs, with the ability to solve simple puzzles and challenges.

Don’t believe us? Come up to the Animal Walk and watch Flymo work out how to get the willow branch that is just out of reach. He has been known to go into his house, take out his feed bucket, flip it over and use it as a step ladder!

  • Animal in Focus: Flymo and Gizmo, This is Flymo, our male pygmy goat who is light grey and black.
    This is Flymo, our male pygmy goat who is light grey and black.

Flymo and Gizmo’s diet includes hay, browse (such as twigs, sticks and hedgerow material), muesli mix and, very occasionally, fruit and veggies as treats. Although humorously named Flymo, ironically pygmy goats rarely graze and act as ‘lawn mowers’. However, pygmy goats are excellent at clearing hedge and scrub as part of conservation grazing management programmes in the UK.

  • Animal in Focus: Flymo and Gizmo, This is Gizmo,our female pygmy goat who is mostly black-coloured.
    This is Gizmo,our female pygmy goat who is mostly black-coloured.

Pygmy goats love fun activities to do, they are superb climbers and will jump and play on obstacles. They are often seen balancing on the wooden stumps and on the sleepers inside their paddocks. As part of their natural behaviour, they head butt each other, the fences, objects and very occasionally their keepers.

Come visit the Animal Walk to meet the twins and the rest of Animal Walk residents.

The Animal Walk is open each day from 12.30pm to 4pm and entry is free.

Dinosaur Cherry on a Prehistoric Cake

Our Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Emma Nicholls, uses her expert eyes to examine the Velociraptor sculpture in our Prehistoric Garden. 

Over the last few months the super green-fingered Gardeners at the Horniman have created a landscape full of plants from the Cretaceous period. Now starting to flourish, the Prehistoric Garden is looking stunning. To top the Prehistoric Garden off, in August of this year we became home to a permanent installation of the most exciting kind- a stylised Velociraptor dinosaur.

  • Velociraptor  , The (r)awesome new addition to our Prehistoric Garden.
    The (r)awesome new addition to our Prehistoric Garden.

Velociraptors rose to fame in the 1993 timeless classic Jurassic Park, in which they are portrayed as scaly, scary, two metre tall monsters intent on feeding beyond stomach capacity and learning how to open doors. In reality Velociraptor was only about half a metre in height and most likely covered in feathers. Whilst pretty certain, the presence of feathers is an extrapolation from other fossil discoveries, and hasn’t been proven for sure. However our Velociraptor is skeletal so the choice of ‘to feather or not to feather’, was not something we needed to worry about.

Our Velociraptor was generously funded by an anonymous donor, for which we are incredibly grateful. It started life as a number of large 8 mm steel sheets, from which the raptor’s parts were cut and then welded together by Neil Bowen of Lakeland Steel. Now fully assembled in the Prehistoric Garden, it measures an impressive 1.5 m in height. It is therefore around three times life size and an imposing addition to our gardeners’ latest masterpiece.

  • Velociraptor, Upside down and in pieces
    Upside down and in pieces

When the Velociraptor first arrived it was deep silver in colour but we are letting it weather to a beautiful tan brown. Exposed to the elements, the mild steel corrodes at around 1 mm a year. Those of you quick at maths will have calculated that in 8 years’ time our Velociraptor will therefore be a pile of twinkling dust, but that’s only if we leave it untreated. Once corroded to the perfect tan colour, Head Gardener Wes Shaw will coat it in a protective sealant to protect the steel from further degradation.

  • Velociraptor, Before and after shots show how our Velociraptor is turning a lovely brown as the steel reacts with the elements.
    Before and after shots show how our Velociraptor is turning a lovely brown as the steel reacts with the elements.

I think it’s fair to say that no-one really wants an unsteady two metre steel Velociraptor wobbling around in the wind, so to keep its impressive bulk steady its feet were literally nailed to the floor. It has large steel plates beneath its feet which have been set in the ground with giant metal tent pegs. A large rock between its feet completed the task. So don’t worry, although it looks fearsome, it’s safe to visit… there won’t be any fearsome steel dinosaurs rampaging down the hill any time soon.

  • Velociraptor, The large steel plates beneath the feet of our Velociraptor.
    The large steel plates beneath the feet of our Velociraptor.

Have you visited our Prehistoric Garden yet? Tell us what you think and share you photos on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #horniman.  

Visit our Dinosaurs: Monster Families exhibition - on display until 30 October 2016. 

Planting for pollinators: help save the bees and butterflies

Our new pollinator bed is designed to be a banquet for pollinating creatures like bees and butterflies. Andrea, our Gardner, shows us around the pollinator bed and tells us the best way to plant for pollinators at home.

This summer, you may have noticed a new border spring into life in the Gardens. Last autumn we started to plant up the bandstand terrace bed with herbaceous perennials, which began flowering in the spring, and are still going strong, creating a lovely splash of colour. As it is still the first year, some of the plants might look a bit sparse, but over the next couple of years, they will get bigger and fill out the bed.

This border contains about 50 different species of plants and has been designed to be attractive to pollinating insects. Pollinating insects like bees, hoverflies, moths and butterflies transfer pollen from one flower to another, helping the plants to fruit and set seed.

As farming practices have changed over the last few decades, there has been a steep decline in the wild flower population that was previously their main food source. As a result, many of their populations are in decline. This may result in problems in the future with food production, as so much of our food is reliant on plants being pollinated, so it is important to help them out.

  • Planting for pollinators: help save the bees and butterflies, Photo by Andrea Benson
    , Photo by Andrea Benson

There are many different pollinators, and there is no one plant that is a good food source for them all, which is why variety is important.

Some flowers, like those in the daisy family, are popular with a variety of pollinators. The flower head is made up of many small florets, each one a nectar source for the insects. This includes flowers like the Echinacea purpurea (Purple coneflower), and the Echinops ritro Veitch’s Blue (Southern globethistle).

  • Planting for pollinators: help save the bees and butterflies, Photo by Andrea Benson
    , Photo by Andrea Benson

Other flower shapes are not so simple. The Salvia guarantica ‘Black and Blue’ (Hummingbird sage) has lipped flowers with long tubes. Bumble bees and solitary bees use the lip as a landing platform and push their heads inside the flower to reach the nectar, coming back out with pollen covering their back.

Others, such as the Lychnis chalcedonica (Maltese cross), have their nectar deep inside a small tubular centre to the flower, which moths and butterflies are able to access with their long thin tongues.

As well as planting a variety of different plants, it’s a good idea to try and create a display that has a long flowering season – especially early and later in the year, when alternative nectar sources might be scarce. Winter/spring bulbs like Crocus, Galanthus nivalis (Snowdrop) and Eranthis hyemalis (Winter aconite) can provide a food source early on in the year, while plants such as Salvia and Rudbeckia (Coneflower), that continue flowering into the late summer and early autumn, cover the other end of the year.

  • Planting for pollinators: help save the bees and butterflies, Photo by Andrea Benson
    , Photo by Andrea Benson

  • Planting for pollinators: help save the bees and butterflies, Photo by Andrea Benson
    , Photo by Andrea Benson

Over the next few years, we’ll continue to tweak the planting display. We’ll be adding some more spring bulbs, as well as assessing how well the plants are doing, and replacing any that have died or are struggling. We’ll keep a good mix of variety and seasonal food source for the pollinators, as well as ensuring there is a long lasting and colourful display for all our visitors.

If you want to help out at home, you can. A list of pollinator friendly plants can be found on the Royal Horticultural Society website. By adding any of these plants to your garden, you’ll be doing your bit. You don’t even need much space. A window box full of spring bulbs or a pot with a couple of sunflowers in will be a welcome refreshment for the pollinators flying around your area.

Send us your pictures of pollinator-friendly plants using the hashtag #Horniman. 

The Pollinator boarder has been created with support from the Finnis Scott Foundation

Big Butterfly Count 2016

This year we are taking some time to celebrate beautiful butterflies and marvellous moths.

Join us for our Big Wednesday event where you can take part in the Big Butterfly Count on the Nature Trail with entomologist Richard Jones, go on a story tour with Mr Horniman and do some butterfly-inspired art and craft.

What is the Big Butterfly Count I hear you ask? It is a nationwide survey aimed at helping us assess the health of our environment. It runs from 15 July – 7 August, and during this time thousands of people across the UK will take count of butterflies and moths.

To take part you just need to spend 15 minutes counting butterflies and moths during bright and sunny weather. You can count during a walk, or sitting in one place – a perfect thing to do during a visit to the Horniman Gardens. You can even download a handy identification chart to help you spot different species.

Information about how to take part from the Big Butterfly Count:

How to count:

If you are counting from a fixed position, count the maximum number of each species you can see at a single time. For example, if you see three Red Admirals together on a buddleia bush then record it as three, but if you only see one at a time then record it as one (even if you saw one on several occasions) – this is so that you don’t count the same butterfly more than once . If you are doing your count on a walk, then simply total up the number of each butterfly species that you see during the 15 minutes.

How to send in your counts:

You can send in your sightings online at bigbutterflycount.org or by using the free Big Butterfly Count smartphone apps available for iOS and Android.
Remember – every count is useful, even if you don’t see any butterflies.
The Horniman staff will be taking part in the Big Butterfly Count and we will keep you updated on how many we see!

Tag us in your butterfly-counting pictures at the Horniman by using #Horniman on Instagram and Twitter.

The wildflower meadow bed

This year we have a new wildflower meadow bed coming into bloom in the Gardens. 

The wildflower meadow bed sits against the outside west wall the Sunken Garden. It was sown in October of last year, so this is its first year in flower and it is looking great. 

We used a wildflower seed mix to fill the bed, from a company called Pictoral Meadows that is specially tailored to suit the semi-shady site where the bed sits. 

The bed will be a permenant display. In the spring our Gardeners will cut it down and it will re-grow each year. 

At the start of the year it looks like a bed of weeds, but as the summer goes a mixture of woodland plants start to appear. It flowers from May through to September and by the end of the summer it is a beautiful mix of colours and scents. As you can see, the bed already looks wonderful. 

Can you identify any of the following plants?

Red Campion (Silene dioica)

Herb bennet (Geum urbanum)

Ox eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)

Crane's-bill geranium (Geranium pratense)

Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris)

Tag your photos of the wildflower garden with #GrowingGardens and #Horniman on Instagram and Twitter.

Brazil Food Garden

The Horniman’s Festival of Brasil extends out into the Food Garden this summer. Among wildflowers in the green, gold, blue and white of the Brazilian flag, we’ve grouped some of our food plants by recipe to give you a taste of the country’s vibrant food and drink culture.

Brazil’s cuisine is a mixture of European, African and South American influences, and in the display you’ll find plants from the Old and New Worlds and from temperate and tropical regions.

One of the most important tropical crops for us to include was Manihot esculentum, otherwise known as cassava or manioc. This fast-growing shrub is native to Brazil and produces starchy tubers – like potatoes or yams – that have been a staple food in South America for thousands of years. You can find cassava growing in the tacaca and arrumadinho sections of the garden.

It is not an easy plant to source in the UK and ours were grown from seed sown in January this year.

Elsewhere in the garden you’ll find the black beans needed to make the popular pork and bean stew feijoada, the okra used in the West African-influenced caruru, and of course the lime and sugar cane needed to mix a proper caipirinha

It wouldn’t be a Brazilian summer without a bit of colour so around our recipes we’ve sown a mixture of wildflowers in the colours of the Brazilian flag.

Against a background of green foliage Glebionis segetum (Corn marigold) gives us yellow, Centaurea cyanus (Cornflower) blue, and Silene latifolia (White campion) the white of the stars in the centre of the flag. The seed was sown in April and is just now – with no help from the June weather – starting to come into flower.

Look out too for a splash of red from the bedding Salvia ‘Forest Fire’ (the red Salvias that have been popular bedding plants since the 19th Century were bred from the Brazilian native Salvia splendens) and some lively Brazilian street art on boards around the garden.

Travel back in time at the Prehistoric Garden

This summer, a new display of Prehistoric plants and living fossils is being planted in the Horniman Gardens. Here, we introduce you to some of the plants you will be seeing in the new bed.  

You may have noticed that our gardeners have started some work in the conifer bed on the lawn above the herbaceous border. This is going to be our new Prehistoric Garden. The theme will tie in with our current major exhibition, Dinosaurs: Monster Families but it will also remain as a permanent planting after the exhibition has moved on. 

We have kept three trees in place from the original planting: the yew, the redwood and the Lawson cypress. We will be replanting the rest of the area with other plants known as 'living fossils' - species that have been around for thousands of years. This planting will include a ginko and a Wollemi pine, as well as tree ferns, cycads and a monkey puzzle tree. 

The tree ferns, or Dicksonia antarctica, were particularly appealing to low-slung herbivorous dinosaurs like the stegosaurs because they did not grow too high off the ground. Today, ferns have prospered, with over 12,000 named species. Perhaps because there are not any dinosaurs left to eat them!

Monkey Puzzle trees, or Araucaria araucana, were around in the Mesozoic Era - which is sometimes known as the Age of Conifers. Conifers were some of the first to evolve on dry land. Today, these cone-bearing trees are represented by familiar species such as cedars, firs, and pines. 

It will still be a while before the bed is completed but there is already a lot to see, so do go and take a peek. 

This project has benefted from funding from the Tesco Bags of Help initiative, with a grant of £8,000.

Planting in the Sunken Garden

Our gardeners are busy digging up the flower beds in the Sunken Garden to make way for our next colourful display. 

This spring saw the Sunken Gardens planted with a wonderful display of dark purple tulips sitting in a sea of blue, pink and white forget-me-nots. 

Sky blue coloured forget-me-nots are common in the wild, but the pink and white veritities are less common, so it was a joy to see this colourful display in our gardens this spring. 

Now the flowers are past their prime, they are being dug up by our gardeners, who will be replanting the Sunken Garden with a new display of flowers that are currently being grown in our nursey. 

The new dispaly will carve the beds into geometric triangles of contrasting-coloured flowers. The arrangement will consist red Salvias, pink Verbenas, red Zinnias and purple Nicotiana. 

Keep an eye out for our new display, which will be planted in the next few weeks. 

We would love to see the photos you take of the display - so please tag us @hornimanmuseum on twitter, and share your pictures with the hashtag #horniman on Instagram

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