As the big day approaches, you might be wondering how to grow one of the most festive plants around: mistletoe. Here are my top tips on harvesting, growing and things to look out for.
The UK's native Mistletoe (Viscum album or European Mistletoe) is a 'hemiparasitic' plant, meaning it draws most of its nutrition from the host plant.
The process of rooting into the host can take over a year. So until then, the plant has to rely on photosynthesising through its leaves.
The best time to harvest mistletoe is mid-December as the cut bunches will stay fresh for around two weeks if kept in cool conditions.
Thinning out large clumps will reduce the weight that the host tree has to bear through winter.
Some people have been known to shoot clumps of this festive parasite out of trees. However, I'd probably recommend a ladder and long arm loppers.
Naturally occurring mistletoe is becoming harder to come by, as apple orchards, the primary host plants of mistletoe in the UK, are being dug up. If you wanted to have a go at growing your own, take a look at Dan's article:
Mistletoe is considered a pest to host trees and can render branches as little more than support and a supply of nutrients and water.
This parasitism contributes to the tree becoming structurally weaker and more likely to break during winter weather.
In periods of drought, trees with mistletoe have a 66% higher chance of dying. The taller the tree, the more likely it is to die.
The haustoria (root tissue) living within the host branch can extend over 30cm towards the main trunk. If you want to reduce or get rid of the infestation, you need to prune back far enough that it doesn't regenerate.
Wrapping black plastic around the branch to exclude light also helps to prevent re-sprouting.
Mistletoe is dioecious, which means it produces male and female flowers on separate plants. Only the female plants produce berries. The larger the colony, the more even the split in sexes and the higher the chance of fertilisation.
Birds disperse the seeds after eating the berries. Historically this would have been the Mistle thrush, but since the 1990s, overwintering Blackcaps from Eastern Europe have become the main propagators. To spread the seeds, birds wipe the seeds from their bills onto branches while cleaning.
The seeds are coated with viscin, a very sticky material that soon hardens, firmly attaching the seed to the stem, branch or trunk of its new host.
Benefits to wildlife
Birds usually prefer red berries, but the white berries of Mistletoe are also an important food source to Redwings and Fieldfares.
The tangled mass of mistletoe branches are sometimes referred to as 'witches brooms', and these can be used as nesting sites for some birds and mammals.
In woodlands where mistletoe has caused trees to lose limbs or fall, the dead timber also provides useful cavities for wildlife to inhabit.
Giving it a go
On the whole, mistletoe is a plant worth having if you can get your hands on some.
I'm fortunate to have a relative with a lovely old orchard down in Somerset who's more than happy for me to take as much Mistletoe as I want.
This year I might be popping back in the next few weeks for the ripe berries, before the birds eat them all, as my new allotment has an apple tree that might be just right for mistletoe hosting.
I'll just have to be patient for five years.