How to grow mistletoe
There are many myths about mistletoe germination, and how to grow your own. A few are discussed on the GYO introduction page
This page sets out outline stage by stage instructions on how to grow your own. The instructions are tailored to European Mistletoe Viscum album.
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.
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.
Mistletoe cut at Christmas is not ideal, but berries can be kept fresh by detaching them and leaving them in a shed until mid-February. They need to be kept in the light – so don’t put them into a darkened room or a box or they’ll be dead by February.
It is far better to obtain fresh berries in February. If you’re worried about birds taking them try netting the plants 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 berries online 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.
For more about hosts visit our Hosts page.
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).
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.
After 24 months…
In Year Three you’ll probably get some proper leaves – though these may be tiny at first.
After the third year 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 a Year 4 seedling, just about to start growing very fast.
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