A kiss under mistletoe is a Christmas tradition, but for one Charles Sturt University academic, this parasitic plant is a year-round passion.
Professor David Watson, from CSU in Thurgoona, is a world authority on the science behind mistletoes.
And his research over the past 20 years has shown the species is good for biodiversity.
"I first noticed that areas with more mistletoe consistently support more wildlife, and we're now much closer to understanding how this happens," Professor Watson said.
In Europe, one species of mistletoe is found, and the tradition of hanging it in the house to ward off evil spirits dates back to pre-Roman times.
But it’s little known there’s a whopping 99 species of mistletoe in Australia, including more than five species on the Border.
Professor Watson, who now lives in Burrumbuttock, first noticed mistletoe in the Wimmera while doing fieldwork for his honours thesis at Monash University.
He then spent several years researching wildlife in the rainforests of Central and South America, and saw when mistletoe shed its leaves it fertilised soils and provided flowers rich with nectar to birds.
“I then thought, hey, what I’d been noticing back home isn’t just a weird Australian thing, mistletoe really seems to be important,” he said. “Nobody was working in this space, so I became that guy.”
Upon taking up a post at CSU on the Border, looking into mistletoe became one of Professor Watson’s key areas of research.
His work has revealed mistletoe has a positive effect on diversity and ecosystem health, as described is his latest article in the respected science journal New Phytologist.
"It's also clear that this pattern in driven by both bottom up and top down processes,” Professor Watson said.
“From the bottom we see that mistletoe sheds enriched litter, effectively fertilising nutrient-deprived soils and boosting productivity.
"But, with its nutritious leaves, fruits and flowers full of nectar, a range of top-down processes are also evident. Areas with mistletoe bring in more birds which, in turn, deposit seeds and nutrients and control leaf-eating insects."
Professor Watson's recently published paper, Fleshing out facilitation – reframing interaction networks beyond top-down versus bottom-up, is available online.
Areas with mistletoe bring in more birds which, in turn, deposit seeds and nutrients and control leaf-eating insectsCSU scientist David Watson