Everything you need to know about mistletoe

Nick Moyle and Rich Hood

Have you ever wondered where the mistletoe magic comes from and, perhaps, how you could grow some of your own? We delve into all you need to know about the Christmas plant

Mistletoe is an evergreen, semi-parasitic plant that can inhabit over 200 species of tree. There are over 1500 different species of mistletoe, but the one with which we are most accustomed to in the UK is Viscum album, the European White-berried Mistletoe. You will most commonly find it hanging around in lime trees, rowan and poplar, but it has a particular penchant for apple trees. 

Take a stroll past an old orchard and you may well spot the odd clump or two, nestling amongst the branches like verdant bubble perm wigs. Mistletoe spotting is made considerably easier during the winter months, when trees have shed their coat of leaves, and it’s this time of year it gets to join in the limelight as part of our Christmas festivities.

 

Mistletoe traditions

Mistletoe’s association with Christmas is actually coincidental—its appearance at mid-winter ceremonies predates Christianity. The ancient druids were particularly smitten with the plant because they believed it to hold magical, medical properties that could cure epilepsy and even be used to treat tumours. 

It was also believed to protect against witchcraft when hung above a door and could reportedly repel thunder. Druids would collect their mistletoe using a golden sickle and would try to harvest from a (rare) mistletoe-bearing oak tree as these plants were believed to be more sacred.

Most important of all, mistletoe was heralded as a potent fertility symbol, due in part to the plant’s suggestively-splayed, v-shaped leaves and the rather… ahem… sexual connotations of its crushed white berries.

The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is thought to come from Norse mythology. According to legend, Baldur was killed by an enemy's arrow made of mistletoe. His mother, the goddess Frigg, wept tears onto the arrow, which turned into white berries that she placed onto Baldur's wound, bringing him back to life. Frigg then blessed the mistletoe plant and promised a kiss to all who passed beneath it.

This kissing tradition was perpetuated during the 18th century by Victorian servants who would dictate that any woman standing under a sprig would be fair game for a kiss. Bad luck would befall anyone who refused. 

 

Germination

Mistletoe plants are predominantly spread by our avian pals. The Mistle Thrush aptly has the most voracious appetite, but there are many other bird species that use mistletoe berries as a source of food. Seeds are either wiped onto branches by seed-smeared beaks or excreted via bird droppings. This may explain the origin of the word “mistletoe”—its name comes from the Anglo Saxon words mistel (dung) and tan (stick), presumably referring to mistletoe’s guano-covered point of origin. 

Germinating your own mistletoe is relatively straightforward, and thankfully doesn’t involve eating and secreting berries (mistletoe berries are toxic to humans). Success-wise, germination can be rather hit or miss, especially if you are using the underdeveloped berries from a plant that was used as part of a Christmas wreath. To maximise your chances, take your berries from the freshest sprig you can lay your hands on.

 

Grow your own

Simply pluck the berries from the foliage of your mistletoe sprig and crush them into a paste, then smear the paste over the joints of your chosen tree (just as you would baste a plump Christmas turkey). 

Choose a site as high amongst the branches as you can as the mistletoe will require maximum sunlight to grow. Some folks suggest cutting into the bark of the tree to create a flap under which to secrete your berry mush, but our own plant successfully germinated by basting our seeds a particularly gnarly armpit of an old apple tree.  

Patience is needed when cultivating mistletoe. Providing your plant germinates, it can take up to five years for those distinctive white berries to develop. Keep that golden sickle in the drawer for now, it might be a few years before it gets to engage in some sprig-slicing action.