It happens every year around Christmas: small, berry-laden sprigs of greenery mysteriously begin showing up over doorways. These innocent-looking decorations are very potent. They have the magical power of bestowing a kiss upon anyone who walks underneath them. The plant is, of course, mistletoe, a small plant that lives high in the tops of trees as a semi-parasite.
This holiday hocus-pocus was originally attributed to a plant heavily steeped in medieval magic, the European mistletoe (Viscum album). However, explorers later discovered a similar-looking “mistletoe” (Phoradendron flavescens) also grew in the New World.
Christmas decorating would not be complete without having sprigs of mistletoe hung in a few strategic locations. The problem with this living Yuletide standard is obtaining it. Buy it at a farmer’s market? That’s cheating! Climb way up into the trees for a twig or two? That’s dumb and dangerous!
In the country, sharpshooters have brought branches of this seasonal prize down to earth with well-placed rifle shots. In the city limits though, this practice could land you in jail for the holidays. Mistletoe just seems destined to remain out of reach.
But understanding exactly how this evergreen oddity becomes established in the high branches leads to an interesting backyard experiment that could bring this natural decoration more down to earth, so to speak.
Discount all of the tall tales you have ever heard as to how mistletoe made it to the tops of trees. There is a simple explanation—one that lands in your birdbath everyday.
It seems our feathered friends get the credit, or blame, for planting most mistletoe in such elevated places. Birds eat the berries and, in trying to wipe the sticky juice from their bills onto a tree limb, will occasionally plant a seed that is inside each berry on the bark. In addition, what birds do on your car’s windshield, they also do in trees, and undigested mistletoe seeds are often stuck to branches in this messy manner.
Some of the planted seeds of this semi-parasite will eventually send out roots that tap into the host tree. Mistletoe spreads and grows relatively slowly and is rarely considered an immediate threat to tree health. If there is plenty of sunlight, the plants will sprout, grow and eventually mature into prized-sized Christmas decorations. Mistletoe seeds that settle on lower, shaded branches usually don’t survive due to the lack of light. So, that is why you usually see mistletoe growing only in the high canopies of trees.
Now that you know the how and why, you can experiment and attempt to grow a little mistletoe in the backyard—at a height much lower and much more safer for harvesting purposes.
First, find a deciduous tree (oak, hickory, poplar or maple are good choices) with a low, healthy limb that is at least as big as your thumb in diameter. Be sure the branch you are going to seed gets plenty of sunlight. Next, make a small, shallow, angled cut into the bark and squeeze a seed out of a mistletoe berry into the cut. The sticky juice will help hold the seed in place. Repeat this procedure about five times on a 6 to 8-inch stretch of limb.
Even if all conditions are favorable, it will probably take at least a year before any leaves start to form. The only care you have to administer while it is becoming established is to make sure the young sprouts get sun and the tree receives water. Then, in a Christmas or two, you should be able to safely pick your own homegrown mistletoe.
If you are considering harvesting mistletoe to bring indoors during the holiday, be sure to place it carefully. The white berries may cause stomach and intestinal irritation with diarrhea, lowered blood pressure, and slow pulse if ingested. While an average adult would have to eat several berries before becoming sick, pets and children may be more sensitive. Make sure to keep mistletoe well out of their reach.
Featured image by L.A. Jackson.
L.A. Jackson is the former editor of Carolina Gardener.