Grow Your Own Mistletoe

Mistletoe is a prized plant at Christmas time, when it’s the custom to decorate our homes with the berries and foliage of holly, ivy, and mistletoe, in celebration of the season.

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.

This is the UK mistletoe species, which is known by the botanical name, Viscum album.

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.

Mistletoe berries shine like pearls. The berries contain a mucilaginous substance called viscin, which enables mistletoe seed to stick to the branches of trees. A percentage of ripe seeds will germinate here on the branches, attached by the mistletoe’s root-like structure, known as a haustorium.

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.

Mistletoe is a hemi-parasitic plant that grows on trees.

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).

Mistletoe berries take a long time to fully ripen. These unripe berries are pictured in September.

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.

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One thought on “Grow Your Own Mistletoe

  1. Lisa G

    December 24, 2020 at 9:20am

    Happy Christmas!

    I got some berries for my husband years ago for fun, as he was intrigued by mistletoe in the orchards in France. We followed the directions but lost interest after no signs of growth over the succeeding years. Five /six years later, we were preparing to do the winter pruning and found two had successfully taken grown into small-medium sized balls (how did we miss them?!) in our Blenheim Orange tree.

    This Christmas there is not a lot of call for mistletoe (not a lot of indiscrimate smooching happening), so we will have to enjoy it ourselves! And share it next year.

    • Author

      Pumpkin Beth

      December 24, 2020 at 9:53am

      Ah, that’s so lovely Lisa! It’s so much lovelier to have your own mistletoe plant than to have a few cut stems and it’s so wonderful to have grown your own plant. How exciting! I love Blenheim Orange apples, too. I hope you are safe and well and wish you a very merry Christmas.

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