Mistletoe

Zsuzsanna Bird

One of the staples of Christmas decoration, mistletoe is a fascinating plant with a weird ecology, folklore and cultivation. Let’s explore it further.

Everyone knows mistletoe grows on trees. It’s particularly associated with apple trees in orchards and is a common sight high in poplar trees. It will also grow on hawthorn, lime and false acacia (Robinia) and very rarely, on oak. In continental Europe it is sometimes found on conifers.

Technically it’s a hemi-parasite, which means it will take nutrient from the host tree, but it can also photosynthesise its own food via its green leaves. The strict host and parasite definition is too simplistic. It is likely that mistletoe shares the food it produces with the tree. It makes sense for a parasite to keep its host alive as long as possible.

Mistletoe

Propagating mistletoe

It’s quite straightforward to grow your own mistletoe, but – be warned it’s a slow process and you may get more than you bargained for.

As with propagating any plant, understanding their biology is key. Birds, notably blackbirds and thrushes, eat the berries and are forced to wipe the sticky residue and sometimes a seed from their beaks onto convenient tree branches.

Store your Christmas mistletoe in a light, cool place until February or March. The seed in the berry is green, so needs light to photosynthesise. You can then replicate the action of birds by squashing seeds onto branches. I’d recommend apple as the best choice of tree.

There’s no need to make a cut in the bark (as some gardening books recommend). Squash berries all around the tree, there’s no one place that works best, then sit back and wait… and wait.

Mistletoe

Initially the seed germinates on the surface of the branch, “clamped on” with a holdfast, rather like ivy. Once established it will enter its parasitic stage and mistletoe and tree fuse in a swelling on the branch.

Expect this process to take 4 long years before you even notice it.

Once established, mistletoe grows like mad! Every year the end of every stem produces 2 new branches. In effect it grows exponentially, doubling itself annually, soon producing a characteristic evergreen ball.

Male and female

Mistletoe plants are either male or female, only the female producing berries. Flowers appear in very early spring, but you need to look hard as they are tiny and green, but beautiful nonetheless.

I vividly remember the excitement of spotting the first mistletoe leaves protruding from my Beauty of Bath apple tree. Now, thanks to the work of birds I have it on every one of the 6 apples in my garden. The Beauty of bath is almost overwhelmed by it and it hasn’t fruited for several years. I’m devastated as this is my very favourite apple variety. It may not be an original thought, but do be careful what you wish for.

Uses and folklore

Mistletoe has been used medicinally for centuries. It can help with blood pressure and circulatory problems, but like many medicines it is toxic in excess. It has recently been used as a controversial cancer treatment. Variation in its efficacy may depend on its host as this can change its chemical composition.

The association with Druids is a persistent one. The notion of a chief Druid clambering up a sacred oak with a golden sickle is a powerful image – even if (in my head) this is the ancient, bearded Getafix from the wonderful Asterix books!

Mistletoe

Romantic as this is, much of our Druid “history” dates back to the 18th century and the highly dodgy interpretations of a few writers with fevered imaginations.

However, mistletoe, like yew, holly and ivy, is rich in folklore because it is evergreen and symbolic of rebirth and everlasting life. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe appears to have been a local custom from Herefordshire and Worcestershire (Britain’s mistletoe epicentre) that spread nationally as Christmas itself became commercialised.

Kissing is a genteel nod towards the plant as a fertility symbol. Its leaves are reputed to resemble genitalia (good imagination needed here) and its squashed berries semen.

So, despite my frustration with it swamping some of my apple trees, why not give growing mistletoe a try if you have a suitable tree in your garden? Then you can carry on the delightful custom of bringing greenery into the home at a time when days are short and we all benefit from a connection with nature and the promise of spring around the corner.

John Hughes garden

John Hughes

Development Manager and Fungi/Gardening expert

Shropshire Wildlife Trust