Merry berry: magical mistletoe
Our only white-berried native plant, mistletoe takes on particular significance in winter. But from inspiring ancient beliefs to providing important wildlife habitat, there’s much more to mistletoe than Christmas kisses.
Here we delve into mistletoe mythology, take a look at its role in nature conservation, discover where to find it and get some tips from our gardeners on how to grow your own.
Mistletoe has been venerated across the centuries and in many cultures. The mythologies surrounding it relate to the plant’s perceived magical properties, whether protecting against witchcraft and injury or as a general good omen. Gallic Druids believed mistletoe’s power was enhanced when found growing in oak trees but only if the plant didn’t touch the ground once cut, or else the magic would be lost. Whilst the trees around lay dormant, it’s easy to imagine how mistletoe, flourishing on bare branches and smothered with milky-white berries, became associated with fertility and even immortality.
Give us a kiss
Bringing evergreens into the home during midwinter has its origins in pagan cultures, as plants which kept their leaves were thought to ensure the return of spring. These winter solstice customs were later combined with the major Christian festival of Christmas, although mistletoe, the most magical of all these plants, was banned from early Church decorations because of its strong pagan antecedent.
Exactly why we kiss under the mistletoe at Christmas is probably a combination of mistletoe’s ancient associations with fertility and a resurgence of interest in pagan customs in the 18th and 19th centuries. Traditionally a man was allowed to steal a kiss from any woman standing under the mistletoe and a refusal was seen as bad luck. By the middle of the 19th century, images of couples kissing under the mistletoe had become universal in Britain. In continental Europe mistletoe is traditionally associated with peace and good luck.
" One of the treats of winter walks is spotting clouds of mistletoe high up in the canopy of the apple trees. "
A specialised community of tiny invertebrates are dependent on mistletoe, including the aptly named mistletoe weevil, first discovered on the National Trust's Brockhampton estate in Herefordshire in 2000. Very little is known about this rare, miniscule beetle and research is continuing. Another mistletoe inhabitant is a micro-moth, called the mistletoe marble (Celypha woodiana), which camouflages itself by resembling a bird dropping. The moth lays its eggs on mistletoe during the summer and the larvae are dependent on the leaves for most of the year.
How to grow mistletoe
Chris Groves, Head Gardener at Overbeck's and former Orchard Officer at Cotehele, Cornwall shares his tips on how to get mistletoe growing in your garden.
Mistletoe seeds germinate best in February and March, so obtain fresh berries then if you can.
Choose the right tree, mistletoe prefers trees and shrubs from the Rosaceae family, which includes fruit trees and hawthorn.
Mistletoe grafts itself onto the tree and grows around it, so it’s important to keep the trunk clear and allow it to establish towards the end of a branch.
Choose at least twenty berries, divided between different branches. Mistletoe is dioecious, meaning plants will be either male or female, so you’ll need to grow both to produce berries.
The seeds are naturally sticky and designed to cling to branches. Wipe fresh berries, squeezing out the seeds, onto the underside of a new branch, where birds are less likely to spot them. Avoid old branches and there's no need to cut into the wood.
Be patient! Mistletoe takes time to establish and five years at least to become large enough to produce berries.
Remember that mistletoe is a parasite, so once it is established it will affect the growth of the branch that it’s on.
For many of us, hanging up the mistletoe is an essential part of Christmas. If you're lucky enough to live in a mistletoe growing region, you can pick up your own freshly cut branch from the end of November and early December at some National Trust properties and at local markets. If not, look out for UK grown mistletoe for sale. Make the most of your mistletoe by keeping it as cool as possible. Hanging it outside or in an unheated porch is preferable, where it should stay fresh for a couple of weeks at least.
Here's our pick of our places where you can enjoy mistletoe this winter.