Mistletoe

Mistletoe (Viscum album) is an evergreen plant that is smothered in white berries from winter to spring. It grows in the branches of trees, such as hawthorn, apple, poplar, lime and conifers.

Viscum album Mistletoe seedling on apple tree RHS/Simon Garbutt

Quick facts

Common name Mistletoe
Botanical name Viscum album
Group Parasitic evergreen shrub
Sowing time March or April
Height and spread Up to 1.1m (3½ft) height and spread
Aspect Any
Hardiness Fully hardy
Difficulty Moderate

How does mistletoe grow?

Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that lives off the nutrients and water from a host tree. Although it is parasitic, it will not kill the host tree but can weaken it.

The berries are often spread by birds from one tree to another, and this is how the large rounded clumps of mistletoe form in tree branches.

The most common host tree in the UK is apple, but poplar and lime are also frequent hosts. It is mainly found in the south and west midlands in the UK, with particularly large populations in Herefordshire.

Harvesting and buying mistletoe

Mistletoe is a popular Christmas plant and decoration. Most mistletoe on sale comes either from the UK or elsewhere in Europe. Look for plants that are freshly gathered (if necessary, ask when it was harvested), with fresh green foliage and ripe white berries that are plump and not withered. Mistletoe will keep for two to three weeks after gathering if it is kept in a cool place such as a shed or garage.

Do not attempt to gather mistletoe without permission from the landowner.

How to grow your own mistletoe

Although mistletoe is spread naturally by birds, it is possible to grow it yourself;

  1. Harvest berries from a tree in March or April. Make sure you choose a tree that is similar to the type of tree in your own garden that you wish to establish the mistletoe on.
  2. Discard any crushed berries and do not use berries from sprigs used as Christmas decorations. These will not germinate as they are generally harvested when immature.
  3. Choose a branch 10cm (4in) or more in girth on a tree that is 15-years-old or more. Ideally this should be fairly high up, so the developing plant receives plenty of light.
  4. Make a shallow cut to create a flap in the bark.
  5. Remove the seeds from the fleshy berries and insert them under the bark flap.
  6. Finish by covering the flap with hessian to protect the seeds from birds.
  7. To ensure greater success, sow quite a few seeds under each flap of bark as only one in ten seeds germinate, and both male and female plants are needed for berries to form.

The branch will swell as the mistletoe develops, but don’t expect quick results; plants can take five years or more to reach berrying size.

    Mistletoe in flowerSowing mistletoe seed on apple treeMistletoe seedling on apple tree

    Problems

    Mistletoe is generally free of pests and diseases.

    If your propagated mistletoe produces flowers but no berries, it means it is most likely a male plant. Where this appears to be the case, try inserting some more seeds on the branches to see if you can even out the balance between male and female plants.

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