Mistletoe is a familiar Christmas feature, steeped in ancient folklore.
An evergreen plant with forked branches and pairs of symmetrical leaves, mistletoe plants are either male or female. Both are needed for the characteristic white berries to form from winter to spring, but they only appear on the female plants.
It is an unusual plant because it doesn’t grow in the soil, but in the branches of trees. With its ball-shaped clusters decorating the branches, it’s easy to spot in winter when the host trees are bare.
There are around 1,500 species of mistletoe around the world. In the UK, we have just the one – European mistletoe (Viscum album). Most mistletoe is found in the South and West Midlands, with rarer occurrences elsewhere.
Mistletoe only grows on hosts that shed their foliage each year, and prefers trees in open areas with plenty of light. This is one of the reasons apple trees and traditional orchards are a firm favourite for any mistletoe looking for somewhere to set up home!
It is a parasite which attaches itself to the outside of a host tree, where its tiny roots take about a year to penetrate the growth ring. Once established, it is then able to suck water and nutrients from the tree, whilst also producing its own food through photosynthesis.
Mistletoe can weaken the host tree, but is unlikely to kill it unless it’s a heavy infestation; a younger tree; or a weakened tree due to drought or disease. Some side effects include stunted growth and loss of vigour. Pruning is the main way to control mistletoe if required, but it’s generally unlikely to harm an established healthy tree.
All parts of the mistletoe plant are poisonous to humans (as well as cats and dogs), but birds such as the mistle thrush love to eat its winter berries, and bees, butterflies and other insects feed on the nectar.
Mistletoe seeds are like glue, and birds wipe them off their beaks and also excrete them onto branches, where they quickly germinate. This is how most mistletoe spreads from tree to tree. And this is also how mistletoe got its name – taken from two Anglo-Saxon words, ‘mistel’ and ‘tan’ – which can be translated to mean literally ‘dung on a stick’!
Poachers are also known to make use of mistletoe, holly and other plants to make birdlime – a sticky substance smeared on twigs to snare small birds (for eating). This cruel practice is illegal.
But as it’s the festive season, let’s not dwell on the poison, poo and trapping aspects of mistletoe for too long, focusing instead on its romantic connotation of kissing underneath it at Christmas. One of the more common explanations for this tradition is that throughout history mistletoe has been seen as a symbol of fertility and life.
If you want to get in on the act, you should always obtain the landowner’s permission before gathering mistletoe from the wild, and be careful to not take too much, leaving plenty for nature. For advice on how to grow your own, the RHS have published this helpful guide. Growing your own mistletoe is not for the faint hearted though – you’ll have to wait five years before seeing any flowers and fruit!
In the meantime – wishing you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from all of us at The Orchard Project.
by Nicole Thomas