Merry berry: magical mistletoe

Mistletoe is traditionally harvested in early December, these freshly cut branches are from the orchard at Cotehele in Cornwall.

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.

Power plant

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.

 

Mistletoe leaves often appear more golden in the winter months. In Greek mythology, the Trojan hero Aeneas plucked a ‘golden bough’, thought to be of mistletoe, which allowed him to travel safely through his perilous descent into Hades
Mistletoe leaves often appear more golden in the winter months. In Greek mythology, the Trojan hero Aeneas plucked a ‘golden bough’, thought to be of mistletoe, which allowed him to travel safely through his perilous descent into Hades
Mistletoe leaves often appear more golden in the winter months. In Greek mythology, the Trojan hero Aeneas plucked a ‘golden bough’, thought to be of mistletoe, which allowed him to travel safely through his perilous descent into Hades

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.

Detail from a Christmas card sent in 1897, when the Victorian taste for anthropomorphic art was at its height. A pair of robins kiss under the mistletoe. From the collection at Killerton in Devon
Detail from a Christmas card sent in 1897, when the Victorian taste for anthropomorphic art was at its height. A pair of robins kiss under the mistletoe. From the collection at Killerton in Devon
Detail from a Christmas card sent in 1897, when the Victorian taste for anthropomorphic art was at its height. A pair of robins kiss under the mistletoe. From the collection at Killerton in Devon

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. 

Mistletoe facts

A single mistletoe branch captured in early morning December light

One and only

There are more than 900 mistletoe species around the world but only European mistletoe (Viscum album) is native to the UK. The forked branches with pairs of wing-shaped evergreen leaves and clusters of pearlescent white winter berries, grow on tree branches. Well-established mistletoe has the appearance of spherical green clouds hanging from trees.

Mistletoe being harvested in December from the old orchard at Cotehele in Cornwall

Geographical spread

Mistletoe's heartland is across the south west Midlands in the counties of Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire where it thrives in the comparatively mild and humid climate among a landscape of orchards, although fruit trees are not its only hosts. However mistletoe can be found growing as far afield as Cornwall and Cumbria.

A young sprig of mistletoe takes root on a tree branch

Helping a host

Mistletoe is hemiparasitic, taking water and nutrients from its host, while the evergreen leaves also photosynthesise. If only the female, berry-laden plants are picked, the male plants can take over, so both need to be harvested to protect the host tree from being swamped and weakened.

" One of the treats of winter walks is spotting clouds of mistletoe high up in the canopy of the apple trees. "
- David Bouch, Head Gardener, Cotehele
The tiny mistletoe marble moth, (Celypha woodiana), was first discovered in Herefordshire in 1878.
The tiny mistletoe marble moth, (Celypha woodiana), was first discovered in Herefordshire in 1878.
The tiny mistletoe marble moth, (Celypha woodiana), was first discovered in Herefordshire in 1878.

Bug houses

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.

Berry birds

Mistle thrush chicks in their nest

Mistle thrush

Most native birds are programmed to search and eat red or black berries and don’t recognise mistletoe’s white bead-like fruit. The mistle thrush, will eat holly and hawthorn berries but as its name implies, it has a dietary preference for mistletoe.

Male and female blackcaps

Blackcaps

Wintering blackcaps cleverly wipe the seeds off their beaks before swallowing the mistletoe berry. Changing migratory patterns have increased their numbers over recent decades, good news for mistletoe which is reliant on these winter berry eaters to distribute its seed.

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.  

Merry mistletoe

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.

A young mistletoe plant visible on the bare branches of a tree

Acorn Bank, Cumbria 

Cumbria isn’t a county usually associated with mistletoe but it was introduced into the garden around a decade ago and it’s now thriving, thanks to the local bird population spreading seeds among the apple trees. The gardens team are now actively controlling the amount of mistletoe that’s growing. Visitors can get up close to mistletoe decorations in the house and of course enjoy seeing it growing in the orchard.

Sprigs of mistletoe ready for sale at Arlington Court in Devon

Arlington Court, Devon 

Although mistletoe prefers trees from the Rosaceae family, as well as poplars and limes, there are always exceptions in nature. At Arlington Court it grows happily on two specimen trees in the lawns near the house, including the North American native ash Fraxinus pennsylvanica. The gardeners are encouraging mistletoe to grow in the Apple Tunnel in the walled kitchen garden, so that the fruit trees can eventually grow their own Christmas decorations and provide a welcome Christmas dinner for the wildlife.

Mistletoe, just visible, growing among the apples as Barrington Court in autumn

Barrington Court, Somerset 

Mistletoe has been thriving at Barrington Court for at least 100 years. The older trees of quince, lime, hawthorn and apples are hosts and the warm, damp Somerset climate allows mistletoe to flourish. Through the ten acres of cider orchard, it’s a delicate balance between pruning back the mistletoe, especially around new apple trees and managing it as a wildlife habitat for the mistletoe moth. Bunches of mistletoe are sold from the end of November.

Usually found high in the branches of deciduous trees, mistletoe is hard to spot until the host tree sheds its leaves

Brockhampton, Herefordshire 

In the heart of mistletoe country, the Brockhampton estate nestles in a Herefordshire valley, little changed in hundreds of years. It’s home to hectares of ancient orchards, abundant with wildlife and perfect for mistletoe spotting. It was here, almost twenty years ago, that a new species of beetle was discovered, aptly named the ‘mistletoe weevil’.

Mistletoe grown at Cotehele in Cornwall is sold every winter

Cotehele, Cornwall 

Cotehele is one of the few places in Cornwall where mistletoe grows. There have been fruit orchards here since the 1700s, and although mistletoe is a relatively recent introduction, it's flourishing. The gardeners prune it a few weeks before Christmas, taking out equal amounts of male and female plants to keep a healthy balance. Around 250 bunches are sold each year, making this is a great place to buy locally grown mistletoe with all funds from sales going back into the garden