I’ve always greatly admired the evergreen spherical forms that mature mistletoe specimens hold high up in the treetops. Mistletoe’s naturally forked growth and branching habit display a symmetrical form that enhances the plant’s beauty, highlighting its simple green leaves and white pearl-like berries.
Viscum album is the only species of mistletoe in the UK. This fascinating plant is hemi-parasitic; mistletoe takes water and nutrients from its host tree but also generates supplementary energy itself, through photosynthesis.
Mistle thrushes and Blackcaps feast on mistletoe berries, spreading seed in their droppings and by wiping their beaks on branches, as they attempt to free sticky mistletoe seeds from their bills. Mistletoe berries are coated in a substance called viscin that adheres seeds to the branches and encourages birds to remove the seed in such a way as to propagate the plant on new host trees.
If you want to grow your own mistletoe, there’s no need to destroy your Christmas decorations; mistletoe sprigs tend to be collected in December, before the berries have fully ripened. Success is more likely, if you use berries harvested from live mistletoe plants in March or April. To remain viable, mistletoe berries need daylight to photosynthesise; accordingly, store your plant material in a bright location, if there’s any delay between harvest and sowing.
Choose a suitably mature tree that’s at least fifteen years old; your tree needs to be robust enough to support itself and the mistletoe. Apple (Malus domestica) or crab apples (Malus), hawthorns (Crataegus), poplars (Populus), limes (Tilia), and trees from the Rosaceae family all make ideal candidates for mistletoe growing.
When sowing mistletoe seeds, select branches in the sunniest vantage points, as mistletoe thrives in bright light. Avoid very spindly, twig like growths and use only ripe berries that are plump and fleshy (discard unripe, shrivelled, or dried berries, which are unlikely to germinate).
Look for nooks or openings in the bark, where mistletoe berries can be squished into natural crevices. Alternatively, take a sharp knife and make a shallow ‘T’ cut on a sturdy branch, then gently open a small section of bark and insert a mistletoe seed. There’s no need to make a deep cut, your aim is to insert the seed just underneath the outer bark; where the seed will make direct contact with the tree’s cambium layer. I’d recommend sowing multiple berries in different locations; as mistletoe tends to have a low germination rate.
Mistletoe is slow growing; with good fortune your mistletoe plant will be producing its own berries within the next five years. Mistletoe is dioecious: plants are either male or female. Both plants flower; the male plants are needed for pollination, but only female plants carry berries.
For gardening advice for December, please click here.
For a calendar of snowdrop garden openings, please click here.
To read about Holly, please click here.
To read about Ivy, please click here.
For outdoor gardening advice for mid-December to mid-January, please click here.
For houseplant ideas, please click here.
For a step-by-step guide to planting a glass terrarium or bottle garden, please click here.