Seen at the Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden ~ Chinese proverb

Friday, 12 December 2014

Plant Profiles: Mistletoe

I walked past this spot for years before I noticed the tree had mistletoe. There used to be two distinctive balls of it sitting side by side, but when I went to take a photo for this post, I found there's now just one. As far as I know it's the only tree in central Chippenham which hosts this parasitic* plant. Having gone round the shops to find some, I see it's the only place in town to have it on display too.

Mistletoe (aka Viscum album**) is one of our most romantic native plants. I don't just mean because of our tradition of kissing beneath it at this time of year, there are also a host of other associated myths and legends. On Tuesday, I went to a fascinating talk at Bath University Gardening Club, where Dr Michael Jones entertained us with all kinds of tales from his years of research.

As a result I've been musing about growing some of my own as I've discovered there's a kit available and I'm tempted to ask my niece and nephew for one for Christmas. It'll make a change from their usual pink sunshine ;)

* = it's hemiparasitic to be accurate. Mistletoe can photosynthesise, so it's not totally dependent on the tree for all its needs, obtaining just minerals and water in this instance. However, it's not a very good hemiparasite as it may kill its host in time, unless it's managed in some way.

** = there are lots of different species (over a 1,000), but the one we're interested in is this one, which is the European mistletoe. The Americans use a completely different species for their traditions at Christmas, from the genus Phoradendron.
Cultivation notes

As mistletoe might kill its host, this should be borne in mind if you want to grow your own. Harvesting a crop will keep it manageable, but it won't destroy the plant unless all of the host wood is cut away as well. This might make the remaining tree look quite odd if you change your mind later!

Also bear in mind that any branch beyond where the mistletoe is growing will die, as the mistletoe will prevent water and nutrients reaching that part of the tree.

Select your tree with care and commit to harvesting it regularly once the
plant is well established. It will be a few years before the mistletoe reaches a harvestable size.

Mistletoe is renowned for growing in orchards, particularly on apple trees. These account for around 40% of all mistletoe's distribution. However, over 80 species of tree in Britain can play host, with lime, hawthorn and poplar accounting for around another 40% of trees with mistletoe.

Michael Jones reckoned domestic apples will successfully host mistletoe sourced from any tree, but better results are obtained on other trees if the seed is sourced from the same species.

Note that mistletoe's natural distribution seems to be climate related as well as orchard related. It seems there may be a relationship between the average temperature in July, with most occurrences found south and east of the 16oC line.

Mistletoe requires both a female and male plants to produce berries (= Dioecious reproduction) and these are then produced by the female plant. The pulp of the berry is very sticky which helps the seed to stick to a branch when either wiped there by a blackcap, or excreted by the mistle thrush. So the human dispersal I'll be doing needs to mimic this.

A grouping of around 10 seeds per selected branch is recommended to ensure success. Each seed is polyembryonic, with the possibility of 3-4 plants forming from one seed's germination.

The seeds need around 12 hours of light per day to germinate and the best results are obtained from late February into March. Keep the berries from your mistletoe in a cool, dark place until then if this what you'll be using. The GYO kits aren't sent out until February.

Because of its light requirements, the best results are obtained by choosing a solitary tree or one on the edge of woodland rather than in the deep shade within. That's why mistletoe is most commonly found in orchards, gardens, parkland and hedgerows.

The chosen branch should be around finger thickness (around 2 year old wood) with thin bark. There is no need to nick the bark to help the mistletoe establish.

NB mistletoe is toxic - it's poison is related to ricin. Farmers will often keep cows in calf away from fields as they may abort their calves if they eat the mistletoe. Bear this in mind if you have any pets or children that are fond of climbing trees.

Kissing notes

Mistletoe can deteriorate quite quickly in modern centrally heated homes, where it yellows and shrivels up in the warm and dry conditions. It's best to buy as fresh and as late as possible, then keep it in a cool, dark place until needed.

Once the mistletoe is up in your house ready for your romantic encounters, misting with some water helps to keep it fresh. The tradition of raising mistletoe isn't just so we can canoodle beneath it, it dates back to the druidic belief that mistletoe loses its powers if it touches the ground. This is also the root of the practice of placing bundles of mistletoe on straw pallets ready for auction.

The full kissing tradition says that one berry must be taken from the bough for each kiss bestowed and once there are no more left, the kissing must stop. The Victorians were concerned there might be too much of it going on! Prices obtained at auction usually reflect the amount of berries present; the more berries, the higher the price.

Further Reading

  • Mistletoe Matters - lots of information on the distribution, host trees, growing and management of mistletoe. There is event information and lots of factsheets too
  • Jonathan's Mistletoe Diary - the blog of Jonathan Briggs, a mistletoe expert and enthusiast who also edits Mistletoe Matters. This is the place to explore if you want to find out more about the myths, legends and folklore surrounding mistletoe
  • The Tenbury Mistletoe Association - Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire is the capital of English Mistletoe and is where the mistletoe auctions take place in the last 2 weekends in November and the first 2 weekends in December. 
NB December 1st is National Mistletoe Day, so expect plenty of extra festivities in Tenbury around this time!

All pictures in this section are from Wikimedia commons. The following credits reflect the order in which they appear: Mistletoe Berries by Alexbrn, Mistletoe Seeds by Fir0002, Mistletoe by David Monniaux, Mistletoe in Lime Trees by Tim Heaton
Plant Profiles is sponsored by Whitehall Garden Centre.

Note to readers:
Sponsorship goes towards my blogging costs; the words are my own There are no cookies or affiliate links associated with this post.


  1. Fascinating!
    Have a great week-end!

    1. You're either up very early or late Lea! Thanks for commenting whichever it is and have a great weekend

  2. A really interesting post, I love mistletoe too. There is some at the nearby country park on low growing apple boughs, it's good to be able to have a really close look at it growing. CJ xx

    1. As you can see, my nearest mistletoe is very high up! This isn't on apple, but I'm struggling to identify which kind of tree just from its bark. A task for next spring :)

  3. It's not very romantic if you happen to be called Balder. I always thought mistletoe may weaken a tree bit not kill it as to do so would rob it of its host.

    1. Indeed Sue, though most legends we know of today in general are a romanticised retelling of the tales from Victorian times. Today I just concentrated on the growing side - the myths and legends part of the talk is saved for another time as there was so much! And the poison which killed Balder (or Baldr as is sometimes written) is also used as a cancer treatment (in a much diluted form), so even that tale has a happy ending of sorts

    2. PS forgot to say, mistletoe does indeed kill the tree in time. That's why it's a poor parasite, though of course it happens over a very long period which does give it enough time to reproduce and spread to other hosts.

  4. A fascinating, and informative, post. Flighty xx

  5. I love mistletoe, especially love the ancient traditions associated with them.
    I shall have to go and mooch about town and see if I can spot this tree :)

    1. It's on Park Lane if you need a clue ;)

  6. Very interesting post, VP! I knew mistletoe was a parasitic plant, but beyond that I really knew nothing about it, other than the legends, of course. Too many pets and children here to attempt growing it, so I'll look forward to seeing how it does for you.

    1. Thanks Rose and congratulations on the birth of your grandson. What a fine Christmas present for a doting grandmother :)

  7. I hadn't realised that Mistletoe would kill its host tree. I rubbed some seed on my Bramley Apple tree, maybe now I'm glad it didn't take!

    1. Pauline - I think it needs quite a bit of mistletoe to do that. It often happens when orchards get neglected. The mistletoe gets spread from one plant until the host tree gets inundated and finally succumbs. The one plant you can see in my main photo should be OK, but its isolation means it doesn't produce berries, so it won't be reproducing.

  8. What a fascinating profile of a very traditional plant....I had no idea it would kill the host plant. If you do grow it, I would love to know how it goes....

    1. Yes, I didn't know that until I went to the talk Donna. It'll be a while until I blog about it - perhaps in a year's time if any of it germinates!


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