Mistletoe’s greenly-golden leaves and pearlescent white berries have been part of winter decorations for many centuries. They reassure us that the cold days, weeks and months will pass and new life will appear again in the spring. Because mistletoe grows magically, apparently spontaneously and seemingly without roots, there are many traditions associated with it.

Mistletoe berries. Christmas tree

Mistletoe berries

1. Kissing

Everyone knows about kissing under the mistletoe. People tend to linger in doorways and passageways, so when a bunch is hung here it’s easy to claim a kiss.

2. Great golden and white spheres

Mistletoe grows in the treetops in large spheres. When it’s happy, these can be as big as 1.1m (3½ft) across.

mistletoe

Apple tree with mistletoe, Apperley, Gloucestershire. Thanks to the Geograph project. © Philip Halling and reused under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

3. Evergreen

The leathery leaves are green all year round.

4. European mistletoe

There are hundreds of types of mistletoe around the world. European mistletoe is very distinctive with pairs of elongated oval leaves, and particular branching patterns.

mistletoe

European mistletoe, Viscum album, and berries in the Wye Valley, UK by GrrlScientist. Public domain.

5. Berries

The waxy white berries, in clusters of two to six, appear from October to May. The seeds inside are coated in a sticky substance. The European mistletoe’s botanical name, Viscum album, is nicely descriptive (‘visco’ is the Latin for ‘sticky’ and ‘album’ means ‘white’).

Friendly warning: leaves, stems and berries are all poisonous.

6. It is hemi-parasitic and cannot grow on its own

Mistletoe must have a host tree as it cannot grow on its own. Although it produces some of its own energy using the chemical process called photosynthesis, it also uses specially adapted roots to penetrate the host’s bark to reach nutrients and water.

7. And the trees hosting European mistletoe are …

  • broadleaved
  • most commonly apple
  • lime and poplar
  • also, for example, hawthorn, blackthorn and rowan
  • rarely oak (that’s wrong information put about by Pliny the Elder in 77-79 AD and compounded by other authors over the centuries).
mistletoe

Mistletoe-laden lime tree, Montpellier Gardens, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. © Tom Jolliffe and reused under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

8. Mistletoe and wildlife

Blackcaps particularly like mistletoe berries, and mistle thrushes, redwings and fieldfares also eat them. Six species of insect are specialist mistletoe feeders.

9. Where does it grow?

Mainly in the traditional cider apple growing counties of Somerset, Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire but elsewhere too. Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire has an annual holly and mistletoe market.

N.B. Don’t gather mistletoe without permission from the landowner.

10. How does mistletoe spread?

Mainly by courtesy of the neat and efficient blackcap. This bird wipes the sticky seed off its beak onto a branch before swallowing the berry skin and pulp. The gluey pulp around the seed hardens and keeps it in position. Some scientists suggest that changing blackcap migration patterns may be helping to spread mistletoe further across the country.

Other birds do eat mistletoe berries and excrete the seed in their droppings, but this method is naturally more hit and miss.

11. What to look for if you’re buying mistletoe

Look for fresh green foliage and plump white berries, freshly gathered (ask when, to be sure). It will keep for two to three weeks if it is stored in a cool place such as a shed or garage.

12. You can grow it yourself

  1. February to April is the time as berries will be ripe. Don’t use berries from Christmas decorations as these won’t be mature.
  2. Choose a suitable tree that’s at least 15 years old.
  3. Pick a fresh and healthy looking berry from mistletoe on a tree similar to the one on which you want to grow it. Or buy a growing kit.
  4. Choose a branch fairly high up, so the developing plant will receive plenty of light. It should be about 10cm (4in) or more round.
  5. Make a small, shallow cut to create a flap in the bark.
  6. Squash the berry to get the seed and push it under the flap. Sow quite a few seeds under each flap to increase your chance of success. Only one in ten seeds germinate, and both male and female plants are needed for berries to form.
  7. Cover the flap with hessian to protect the seeds from birds.
  8. The branch will swell as the plant develops, but it can take five years or so before berries are produced.
mistletoe

Planted seed on apple tree in 2008 and no sign of success until 2013. Then, baby mistletoe! ©Siaron James and reused under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

 

It's a fascinating plant. Look for mistletoe in trees when you're out on a winter walk.