When I was growing up, if someone had asked me what mistletoe was, I would have pointed to the ball of plastic leaves and berries that my mom hung in the doorway every year at Christmas. I had no idea at the time that real mistletoe is steeped in myths and legends. Oh, and it’s poisonous!
What Is Mistletoe?
There are two common types of mistletoe harvested for use at Christmastime. In England and Europe, most mistletoe is Viscum album. In the United States, the mistletoe you’ll most commonly find is Phoradendron leucarpum. Mistletoe is a parasitic plants. It relies on its host plant for nutrients and water.
The word mistletoe comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “misteltan”, which translates as “little dung twig.” This is thought to be because mistletoe is spread about when birds eat the white berries and then excrete the seeds somewhere else.
Where Does Mistletoe Grow?
Mistletoe can be found growing high up in trees. It is especially visible once the leaves fall off the host trees because it stays green all through winter. According to the Wisconsin Horticulture Division of Extension, mistletoe can infect more than 100 species of trees in the United States. In urban areas, it can be found in American elms.
Various types of mistletoe grow across the United States. In Oklahoma, mistletoe became a symbol of survival, hardiness, and endurance for the early settlers because it was the only green in the landscape in the wintertime. For a long time, it was their state flower.
How Do You Harvest Mistletoe?
For those wishing to gather real mistletoe to use for holiday decorations, it can be tricky to harvest because it tends to grow near the tops of trees. Here are some tips if you want to find and harvest mistletoe to use or sell:
- Ask the owner of the property where the mistletoe is for permission to gather it. They may appreciate you doing this because mistletoe is parasitic and too much of it in a tree could lead to the tree’s decline or death.
- Find mistletoe that is within reach with a long pole pruner and use that to knock down the mistletoe.
- Bag it up and keep it out of reach of children.
Is Mistletoe Poisonous?
Mistletoe is poisonous, but not to the birds who eat the berries. That doesn’t keep people from finding it and harvesting it to use for Christmas decorations. Handling it generally doesn’t cause problems. Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling mistletoe and keep it out of reach of kids and pets.
Should You Try to Grow Mistletoe?
I don’t think it is a good idea to try to grow your own mistletoe because it is a parasitic plant that over the long term could harm whichever tree you decided to grow it in.
Also, mistletoe is dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers are on separate plants. You would need to have both male and female plants to get berries on the female plant. This means you would have to grow several plants from seed to increase your chances of having both types in your trees.
If you want to give it a try, the easiest way to grow mistletoe would be to harvest fresh mistletoe and squeeze the seeds out of the berries. Place the seeds on the branches of the tree you’ve chosen to be the host plant. They should stick on like a sticker. It may take several months for the mistletoe to germinate and several years before it grows large enough to know if you have female and male plants.
If you simply want real rather than faux mistletoe to decorate at Christmastime, you can usually find it at florist shops, purchase preserved mistletoe or harvest some in the wild.
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