Many people (particularly in Britain) want to grow their own mistletoe – but often get conflicting advice on how to do it.
There is almost a whole mythology about it, based on confused understanding of what mistletoe needs and how it grows.
A few of the usual myths (often repeated by gardening ‘experts’ in magazines, newspapers and television) are listed below. Some of these myths are completely counter-productive and following them will minimise, not maximise, your chance of success!
- “seeds have to pass through a bird to germinate” – not true
- “seeds need the fertilisation from bird droppings to germinate” – not true
- “seeds should be placed under a flap in the host bark” – not true
- “seeds should be covered in muslin/raffia/etc to hold them in place” – not true
- “seeds must be planted on the same host as their parent plant” – not true
- “the best location is in old fissured bark” – not true
Remember this website is about the Viscum album the traditional mistletoe of Europe. Growing advice given here is for that species, and may not be suitable for other species of mistletoe.
How to grow mistletoe
There is much mis-information (see above) about mistletoe germination and how to grow your own. This section sets out helpful stage by stage instructions on how it should be done. The instructions are tailored to European Mistletoe Viscum album.
(A note on pre-infected trees: There are some suppliers who sell pre-infected trees – i.e. young trees with mistletoe already established. Whilst this might seem tempting it is often not a good idea as the trees will be too young and the mistletoe will distort growth and over-dominate the tree within a few years – which is not good for the tree or the mistletoe as the mistletoe needs a healthy tree. Establishing mistletoe yourself from seed on a more mature tree is much more sustainable and easy to do.)
Germination can be divided into non-parasitic and parasitic phases. In the first the seed extends a green hypocotyl which bends towards the host surface. Once this is contacted it flattens to a sucker-shaped holdfast adhering to the host surface.
Once the holdfast is established the parasitic phase begins as the seedling begins to penetrate the host tissue stimulating the growth of a connecting organ or haustorium. The haustorium, which will appear as a swelling where the mistletoe is attached, is a mix of both host and mistletoe woody tissue.
Ignore most old gardening lore.
Disregard any advice you’ve heard or read that suggests cutting flaps in, and hiding seeds under, host bark! This is unnecessary and counter-productive – mistletoe seeds need intact healthy host bark, and light, to grow. They are naturally sticky, and so simply glue themselves onto the bark surface.
Don’t store seeds for long – and never in the dark.
Mistletoe seeds germinate best in February and March, not at Christmas. You can keep Christmas berries fresh by detaching them and leaving them in a shed window until mid-February – though this is not ideal.
And even if you keep them for a short time don’t keep them in the dark (and never in the fridge)! The seeds are actively photosynthetic and need to be kept in the light, otherwise they will die within a couple of weeks.
Be prepared to be patient
You’ll need a lot of berries to be sure of success. You need to time it right – success is much higher in February to March. Mistletoe grows very slowly in the first 4 years – so it’ll be some time before you get a significant plant. But it grows very fast once it’s well-established.
It is best to obtain fresh berries in February. If you’re worried about birds taking them try netting the parent plant at Christmas to ensure some are left. In most years this shouldn’t be a problem – there are usually still some berries left as late as April.
If you don’t have a local source you can buy fresh berries online (in Grow-Kits) at the English Mistletoe Shop.
In February, if the berries have been stored, rehydrate them for a few hours in a little water.
Whether fresh or stored, the seed needs to be squeezed out of the berry – you’ll find they come out enclosed in a ball of sticky jelly-like viscin. Collect several of these sticky seeds on your fingers. You’ll find they stick onto you rather well, and this is a convenient place to keep whilst planting on the tree. Try to remove as much of the jelly-like gluey viscin as possible, as the seeds seem to germinate better when fairly ‘clean’, and still stick on perfectly well with only a little glue remaining.
Choose your victim…
Then choose your host, bearing in mind European Mistletoe’s preferences – apple first, then poplars, limes, false acacia, hawthorn etc. Most trees and shrubs of the Rosaceae are suitable.
There is an information sheet on Hosts and Habitats in Britain available here: http://mistletoe.org.uk/homewp/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/infosheet_3_habsandHosts.pdf
Remember that mistletoe is a parasite and will affect the growth of the branch it is on and, if on apple, will reduce fruit yield.
Avoid older branches and the trunk – they will be more difficult for the mistletoe – and anyway you don’t want mistletoe close to the trunk, it’s best to grow it well away from the centre of the tree.
Stick those half-dozen seeds you stuck on your hand onto the branch.
Label them! – with a plant label tied to the branch (it’s very easy to forget which branch you used and initial growth over 24 months is tiny so you may not spot the tiny seedlings).
Try to plant as many as possible, at least 20 berries at once, divided between 4 or so branches. Germination is easy (it will happen – but many will later die, or be eaten by birds and invertebrates.
And remember mistletoe is ‘diocieous’ – so each plant will be either male or female. This means you’ll need at least two plants, and maybe several, for berries…
A few will already be mssing, eaten by birds or grazed off by invertebrates – but survivors should begin to look like those pictured here.
This is as big as they get in Year One – so be sure your label is tied securely to the branch or you’ll lose track of them by next year.
After 12 months…
In Year Two, your surviving seedlings may become more erect, but you’ll often see little growth – but as long as your shoots are still green your mistletoe should still be ok. If your seedlings have been grazed by slugs or snails they may be set back another year, but don’t despair, they can survive for some time as really tiny growths!
After 24 months…
In Year Three, if all’s gone well, you’ll probably get some proper leaves – though these may be tiny at first. If the plants have been set back this stage may not be until year 4 or 5.
After the first proper leaves the mistletoe plant will start to grow much more rapidly. Each branch bifurcates at least once a year – so the number of branches doubles. This picture is of two Year 4 seedlings, just about to start growing very fast.
Need more help?
And there’s an information sheet on Growing Your Own here: http://mistletoe.org.uk/homewp/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Mistletoeinfosheet_5_growingmtoe.pdf