Have you ever wondered about mistletoe? I have been working in the orchard pruning the apple trees recently and noticed the abundance of mistletoe we have growing there. I was inspired to learn more about this interesting plant that I walk past every day!
Mistletoe, or Viscum album in Latin, is an evergreen partially parasitic plant which grows in the branches of trees. This means that it makes some of its own food in the same way that most plants do, but it also obtains nourishment from the host tree. It does this without killing the tree, but at the same time it doesn't offer any benefit to the tree either. You are most likely to see mistletoe growing in trees with a soft bark, such as apple, hawthorn, lime and poplar. It is also more common in places with a mild, damp climate, for example Herefordshire and here in Somerset.
During the medieval period, mistletoe was considered a symbol of fertility. This might have been because it remained green throughout winter whilst the host trees had lost all of their leaves. This may have led to the commonly known tradition of kissing beneath a hanging sprig of mistletoe at Christmas time.
So what do you need to do to get mistletoe growing in your own tree? The RHS suggests extracting the seeds from the white berries that are borne in winter and spring, and inserting them into the host tree by cutting a flap in the bark. In nature, the mistle thrush eats the mistletoe berries and gets some of the seeds stuck on its beak. The bird will then whack it's beak against the branch of a tree to knock the seeds off, thus spreading the seeds to another branch of the tree where they may then germinate. Therefore, simply sticking the seeds to the branch of the host tree may also result in germination.
If you have successfully grown some mistletoe but it has no berries, this might be because it is a male plant. Mistletoe is diocieous, meaning that you can get separate male or female plants. You need a male plant and a female plant in order to get berries.
Mistletoe is currently being used as a controversial form of cancer treatment. Extract from the poisonous mistletoe plant is injected into the patient. This is used to complement other cancer treatments. For more information on this and mistletoe in general visit www.mistletoe.org.uk.