Mistletoe is an evergreen plant that produces berries in winter. It may be best known for its snowy white berries, but there are actually more than 1,500 species of mistletoe around the world and the berries can be white, pink or red.
It is a parasitic plant that attaches to other trees and shrubs, thanks to the modified roots of mistletoe. Mistletoe cannot grow on its own and needs these host plants to survive. It is commonly seen as clusters of green growth that appear prominently in trees during the winter, when they lose their leaves.
Can you grow mistletoe at home?
Despite the very specific growth habits of mistletoe, you can grow your own mistletoe at home in your backyard with a little patience. Using locally grown mistletoe can provide a fresh addition to your annual Christmas traditions rather than buying it from a store and throwing it away in the New Year, or hanging fake mistletoe in your home. If you’d like to try growing mistletoe for your Christmas foliage, we’ll reveal some expert tips to help you succeed.
How does mistletoe grow?
Mistletoe clings to the branches of trees and other shrubs. It is commonly seen on hawthorn, maple, birch, elm and large apple trees. It takes water and nutrients from host plants to grow and develop. Mistletoe can affect tree growth and any potential crops, but it is unlikely to kill the tree itself.
It is a slow-growing plant that develops into clusters of forked branches, often looking like green balls high up in the tree. Mistletoe takes years to develop its attachment to the host plant and develops into spherical clumps that can be several feet in diameter.
Mistletoe has separate male and female plants, and only female plants bear berries – meaning multiple plants are needed. The leaves, stems and berries of mistletoe are poisonous so care must be taken when growing and using it as an ornamental, as the foliage will be toxic to pets and very harmful to humans.
How to grow mistletoe from berries
The simplest way to grow mistletoe is to collect the berries from existing clumps and try to attach them to a healthy host plant.
Large, well-established trees are best to use and you can even tie them to older espalier trees if you want to get the mistletoe at a height that is easier to harvest. Where possible, try to plant new mistletoe on the same type of tree it came from, as this can help with the likelihood of success.
Julia Omelchenko, Plantum’s resident botany expert, says it’s important to use freshly picked berries rather than old ones — from the mistletoe you tended indoors over Christmas, for example — which have likely dried out and won’t sprout. She recommends storing your fresh seeds in a light, cool place before planting them from February to March.
When it comes to propagating mistletoe, Julie offers four simple steps to success:
- Once you have selected a host plant, choose a healthy, strong branch about 2-4 inches thick that faces the sun
- If you want to use mistletoe for ornamental purposes, plant several seeds at the same time. Also, some seeds may be eaten by birds or insects, so make sure you plant plenty of them
- Squeeze the berries one by one until you get a sticky, jelly-like substance containing black seeds. Although mistletoe is toxic to humans and pets, it is safe to handle. Just be sure to wash your hands after sowing
- Spread the contents of the berries with seeds on the sunny side of different branches and mark them
Then you have to be patient. It can take up to three years for the first leaves to appear, and five years for you to see the first berries. Mistletoe will not need any watering or feeding because it gets everything it needs from the host plant. As long as the host plant remains healthy, it should provide the mistletoe with everything it needs.
Julia Omelchenko is a professional plant expert with the Plantum app that helps identify plants and plant diseases and provides care recommendations. Her specialization is plant pathology, plant physiology, and plant biochemistry.
How to preserve mistletoe
Mistletoe is very easy to care for. As long as the host remains healthy by feeding, watering and maintaining it properly, the mistletoe will continue to grow. There are no pests or diseases that tend to bother the plants, and the main problems you are likely to encounter are overgrowth or spread to other trees. It spreads very easily as birds eat the berries and disperse the seeds through their droppings.
Because clumps of mistletoe can become very heavy, it is best to prune the balls regularly to prevent them from becoming so heavy that they cause the branch hosting them to sag or break. Regular monitoring can also identify unwanted mistletoe appearing on branches or other trees. If there is any unwanted mistletoe high in the tree canopy, it may be best to hire a professional arborist to deal with it.
“You’ll need to remove any unwanted mistletoe balls from your landscape by cutting them back to the base and covering the remaining branches with black plastic to eliminate them,” says Mike Lansing, managing director of Planter Digest. “Unwanted mistletoe can also be eliminated with herbicides applied directly to the new growth.”
Herbicides must be used with extreme caution. It should be applied carefully to the mistletoe to avoid causing any potential damage to the host tree or shrub. If you are using a sprayer, consider using the Keyfit Tools AccuTip Dauber available on Amazon to precisely apply the herbicide only to the mistletoe itself.
Mike Lansing is the co-founder and managing director of Planters Digest, and a certified garden designer, who has turned his passion for plants into a thriving business.
How fast does mistletoe grow?
Mistletoe grows very slowly and requires a lot of patience if you want to grow it at home. “You may not notice any growth until the plant is 3-4 years old,” says Julia Omelchenko, Plantum’s resident botany expert. “It will take about 5-6 years before the plant is mature enough to flower and start bearing fruit.”
In addition to mistletoe, there are other perfect Christmas plants that you can grow at home. This involves growing your own holly, an easy-to-grow shrub that can look like an ornament in the garden and can be used for decorations and Christmas wreaths.