Crop Focus: Mistletoe
Mistletoe, a holiday decorating staple for centuries, reproduced itself without soil for millennia before anyone even knew hydroponics was a thing.
Viscum album—the genus and species of mistletoe—is a parasite growing off of the nutrients and moisture of typically soft-barked trees. Its naturally sticky (viscin) seeds embed themselves easily onto trees and live for many years off of the host tree’s largesse.
Mistletoe has been associated with winter decorating and rituals since recorded time, particularly prominent in Norse mythology and Celtic ceremonies. It’s green leaves and white berries in winter quickly came to symbolize life, fertility, and vitality during a dormant time of year. Its festooning, foliage-full branches give the appearance that its host tree is still in full leaf during the winter. The origins of kissing under the mistletoe are not fully known, but many believe that bad luck will ensue for any who do not respect the custom. Some variations include plucking a berry every time a couple kisses beneath it, rendering it needless to kiss beneath it once there are no more berries.
Mistletoe is most often “seeded” by bird droppings. While it can grow on a wide range of trees, it prefers the bark of trees in the Rosaceae family, which includes fruit trees like apples, pears, and cherries, as well as the Mountain Ash and Hawthorne species. The most viable berries collected for propagation purposes are those collected in late January through February. Competition with birds for these seeds can be fierce.
To ensure there are enough berries for propagation, it as advisable to cover mistletoe shrubs with netting to prevent theft by winged bandits. Saving the berries from mistletoe used for holiday decoration may prove disappointing, as they will likely be dried out by the time early spring arrives. It can be done, though, if the berries are plucked when still fresh and stored in a moist, light area until you are ready to germinate them.
February through March is the best time to sow mistletoe. When you are ready to germinate the seeds, squeeze the berries to remove them from the drupe. Their viscin will make the seeds stick to your hand, which makes it easy to keep track of them. Select a young branch or branches less than one inch in diameter, and stick the seeds directly to the underside, about one to two inches apart. The reason to select younger branches is because the bark is thinner and easier for the mistletoe to penetrate.
An alternate method is to make an incision in the bark and insert the seed within. This can compromise the health of the host tree and is the main reason why most propagators do not choose this method. Mistletoe is not usually cultivated indoors—its mature, harvestable size is not conducive to most indoor spaces.
Viable seeds will begin to germinate in April and May. Do not expect leaps and bounds. There will be hints of green, with the first tiny cotyledon leaves making an appearance. These can be difficult to detect, so try to mark the branch or branches where they have been seeded. In the second year of growth, be content if they are still green. They are busy developing their roots and are not putting out much to show. The young seedlings may only grow about a quarter to half an inch and may not even be this tall until the third year, the time in which the seedling will develop its first set of true leaves. Be patient.
In year four, things start to take off and grow exponentially. Every branch will in turn create another branch, so things essentially double in size every subsequent year. Mistletoe takes a long time to establish, but once it has matured, it is hard to stop it from flourishing so long as it is embedded into a healthy tree and can continue to nourish itself from it.
Due to its predatory nature, mistletoe will thrive at the expense of another tree’s potential productivity and vitality. In order to maintain a healthy stand of mistletoe, it is necessary to maintain the health of the host tree or shrub as well. Only female mistletoe plants will produce berries. Male mistletoe plants will flower, though. It is necessary to sow numerous seeds to ensure there is a female plant among your seedlings to produce berries.
Commercial Potential for Home-grown Mistletoe
The main drawback to producing mistletoe for the retail or wholesale markets is the length of time it takes to grow from seed to harvest. At five years or more, it is not a quickly turned around crop. However, once established, a single plant can produce harvestable sprigs and berries for many years. Single sprigs with berries could easily fetch up to $10 each if properly packaged and presented. Selling bulk mistletoe could be profitable as well, yielding up to $20 per pound in some markets. Annual seeding of mistletoe is advisable to ensure a constant supply. Once an established plant is producing seeds, there is no need to purchase any again.
On a final note, the leaves and berries of mistletoe are toxic. This is especially important for potential customers who are parents and pet owners to know before buying real mistletoe. For these folks, artificial mistletoe may be best.
Written by Chris Bond | Certified Permaculture Designer, Nursery Technician, Nursery Professional
Chris Bond’s research interests are with sustainable agriculture, biological pest control, and alternative growing methods. He is a certified permaculture designer and certified nursery technician in Ohio and a certified nursery professional in New York, where he got his start in growing.