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Berry close-up
Established mistletoe
Established mistletoe

Mistletoe is a strange and mysterious plant. Growing high off the ground with no roots and remaining stubbornly green throughout the whole winter, its white berries shine out against a backdrop of sombre greys and browns. No wonder it had such an effect on our ancestors, giving rise to an abundance of myth and legend. It’s one of the few plants whose folklore nearly everyone knows – a kiss under the mistletoe is just the latest incarnation of a fertility tradition dating back thousands of years in Britain.

However, mistletoes aren’t just found here – there are hundreds and hundreds of species worldwide. Some even grow on cacti, while others have bright red flowers and are pollinated by hummingbirds!

What is mistletoe?

Mistletoe, often mistakenly thought of as a parasitic plant, is in fact a ‘hemiparasite’. This means that although it ‘steals’water and nutrients from its host plant, as it has green leaves it can photosynthesise and partially support itself.

How to grow mistletoe

Berry close-up
Berry close-up

If you bought mistletoe for Christmas, put it in a jar of water outside, somewhere protected where it won’t be forgotten. Let the berries ripen until March or April. Ripe berries are pearly white – if they’re green they’re unripe. Then select your victim. Mistletoe grows on a range of trees and shrubs; it’s most commonly found on apples. Hawthorns and limes (Tilia) are the next most frequent hosts, and it can even grow on cotoneasters!

Germinated mistletoe
Germinated mistletoe

Simply rub the berries on the underside of a healthy branch. The seeds are handily coated in a glue-like substance called viscin which helps them to stick. Ideally the branch should be around 4cm (1.5in) thick. Then it’s a good idea to mark where you’ve sown it. I learnt this the hard way – having sown and germinated mistletoe seedlings on an olive tree (see photo) in my previous job, I then forgot all about them, only to discover they were all pruned off by a well-meaning colleague. Lesson learned.

Freshly sown seed Centre right
Freshly sown seed Centre right

I used leftover leg rings (yes, I’ve accessorised my chickens, but that’s another story) to mark the location of mistletoe sowings on my trees. Ribbons, nylon twine, plastic ties…anything that will last for a couple of years will be OK. Mistletoe takes time to grow – don’t plan on harvesting for four or five years. But what a talking point. Good luck, and happy New Year!

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Mistletoe in front garden

Many thanks to Giulia and family, who kindly allowed me to take pictures of the 10-year old mistletoe they’ve grown in their front garden in Peterborough.

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