Mistletoe: a traditional Christmas plant


I am a qualified gardener and horticulturalist and love everything that grows! Whether it's a shrub, a tree, a useful plant or a supposed weed: for me, every plant is a little miracle.
In the garden I look after my 13 chickens, grow fruit & vegetables and otherwise observe how nature manages and shapes itself.

Favourite fruit: Blueberry, apple
Favourite vegetables: Braised cucumber, kale, green pepper

How do you pick mistletoe for Christmas? Is it actually poisonous? Here we will delve into six of the most intriguing questions about the mistletoe plant, from its history to its uses.

Bunch of mistletoe with a bow
Mistletoe is a popular Christmas decoration with a unique kissing tradition [Photo: Oleksandr Rybitskiy/ Shutterstock.com]

According to ancient customs, two people standing under mistletoe must kiss. But mistletoe (Viscus album) is not just an icebreaker and matchmaker for singles. In the past, many believed it kept evil spirits at bay and fire away from houses. Mistletoe was also a sacred plant of the druids used in healing potions. Today, it brings good luck at Christmas. Read on to find out how mistletoe lives on trees and how to harvest it as well as its interesting traditions and medicinal uses.

Fact: The white berry mistletoe (Viscum album subsp. album), which is native to Europe, is what is known as hemiparasitic. This means that it carries out photosynthesis itself through its green leaves but extracts water and nutrients from a host plant through its specially adapted roots − called haustoria.

1. Is mistletoe poisonous?

Mistletoe is slightly poisonous and, if consumed in excess, may cause discomfort in the form of abdominal pain, diarrhoea, low heart rate and lowered blood pressure. A visit to the doctor is rarely necessary. Pregnant women are advised to steer clear of mistletoe and medicines made from it.

All green parts of mistletoe are slightly toxic to humans because of the proteins called viscotoxins they contain. If accidentally consumed, people may experience abdominal pain, diarrhoea, a decreased heart rate and lowered blood pressure − however, a critically toxic dose of mistletoe is not known. The juice of the leaves and stems can also irritate the skin and mucous membranes. Even if only the berries have been consumed, you should drink plenty of fluids as a precaution, but further measures are usually unnecessary. When prepared in a particular way, mistletoe is even used as an effective medicine. However, pregnant women should avoid it in any form, as some of its ingredients can pass into the placenta. The effects of this are still unknown.

Mistletoe with white berries
Mistletoe is only mildly poisonous and symptoms are rare [Photo: Kuttelvaserova Stuchelova/ Shutterstock.com]

For birds, however, mistletoe is anything but poisonous. White mistletoe berries provide an important source of food for our resident birds during the barren winter months.

2. A remedy, a Christmas custom and a miracle plant

Mistletoe has rich symbolism in various cultures, past and present. It likely owes this to its unusual way of living on trees, its winter flowers and its evergreen leaves. It is a sacred plant that represents life and is used as a medicinal plant all around the world. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe originated in England, and its connection to Christmas is said to have been adopted from pagan customs.

As far back as ancient Greece, mistletoe had already garnered a treasure trove of symbolic meanings. The hero Aeneas used a branch of oak mistletoe (Loranthus europaeus) to open the gate to the realm of the dead. Because of this, the plant is mythologically regarded as the victor over death. It is one of the few plants that blossoms, bears fruit and remains green in winter − it symbolises life.

Mistletoe also plays an important role in Norse mythology, in the Edda: Frigga’s son Baldur was fatally shot with an arrow made of mistletoe. Frigga had taken a promise from all beings not to harm Baldur, but had forgotten the mistletoe, which the mad god Loki took advantage of. In her rage, Frigga forbade the plant to ever touch the ground again, so that it had to move to lofty heights.

Among the Celts, mistletoe was a magical panacea that could only be cut from trees with gold sickles and picked up with the left hand. It was also believed to improve fertility, help ill children, and protect against fire, disease and spirits.

And finally, there is the famous English custom of kissing under the mistletoe. According to tradition, two people standing under mistletoe must kiss every time the man involved picks a berry from the bunch.

The romantic symbolism of mistletoe is common in many other countries too. If a couple kisses under mistletoe, their love is said to last forever. But the love does not have to be of a romantic nature − it is also said to strengthen friendships.

But what does mistletoe have to do with Christmas? The connection to the Christian festival was inherited from celebrations of the winter solstice. It is thought to have been used for its magical effects against spirits. The defiant green leaves in the cold of winter were also viewed as a sign of life and a beautiful winter berry decoration.

Mistletoe plant growing on a tree
Mistletoe flowers and bears fruits in winter [Photo: travelview/ Shutterstock.com]

3. How do you harvest mistletoe?

Mistletoe is found on certain deciduous tree species, such as maple and poplar, as well as some conifers such as fir and pine. They are harvested either by using a ladder or from the ground with a telescopic saw or shears. You can remove whole plants or only parts if you want the mistletoe to survive and continue to grow.

Often the problem with harvesting these beautiful parasitic plants is finding them first. For this it is useful to know which trees they like to inhabit. Look on poplars (Populus), willows (Salix), apple trees (Malus), birches (Betula), hazels (Corylus), false acacia (Robinia pseudoacacia), limes (Tilia) and maples (Acer). Conifers, such as silver fir (Abies alba), pine (Pinus) and spruce (Picea), can also bear mistletoe. A secret for finding mistletoe is to look in overgrown orchards, as it tends to grow well on apple trees.

Once you have found some, mistletoe is quite easy to harvest. They can be harvested by hand, with scissors or hand saws. Mistletoe can be harvested as entire plants or in parts (allowing for future harvests). We suggest harvesting from the safety of the ground with a telescopic saw or shears. If using a ladder, be sure that your ladder is stable and have a second person hold the ladder steady.

Note: Mistletoe is covered by the same protection as all other wild plants in the UK through the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981, as amended), so you can harvest wild mistletoe but not uproot the entire plant. That said, be sure to get permission from the landowner first!

4. How do you remove mistletoe from trees?

If your trees are suffering from mistletoe infestations, check the trees annually and remove the hemiparasites by cutting the mistletoe off close to the trunk of the host. A good time to do this is in winter, when the mistletoe is easily visible on the bare host plant.

Mistletoe in trees can be problematic. In orchards, it can become a problem if the infestation threatens the survival of the tree. This generally applies to most infestations, regardless of the tree species affected. Mistletoe should be cut off as close as possible to the trunk of the host tree − complete removal is not possible without damaging the tree, but fortunately this is not necessary. Remove all mistletoe in the immediate vicinity to reduce the likelihood of a new infestation.

Tree overgrown with mistletoe
If a tree is heavily colonised with mistletoe, it runs the risk of suffering major damage [Photo: SannePhoto/ Shutterstock.com]

Tip: Harvest mistletoe from your trees during Advent to get beautiful decorations for winter festivities and perhaps even gifts for friends. It stays green and fresh for a long time when placed in water.

5. Can you grow mistletoe yourself?

If you’d like to grow mistletoe yourself, you’ll need seeds, a suitable host tree and patience. It is only one to two years after sowing that a sown mistletoe first appears as a green shoot. It then has to grow for several more years to reach its full shape to make a beautiful Christmas decoration.

You can grow your own mistletoe by following these steps:

  1. Collect ripe mistletoe fruit between November and March. The berries are ripe when they become soft. Note that there are subspecies adapted to specific host trees: deciduous mistletoe, fir mistletoe and pine mistletoe.
  2. Without storing them for too long, sow the seeds together with the surrounding fruit.
  3. Choose a spot on the new host tree that has thin bark − thick bark can prevent germination. Height and thickness of the branch or trunk does not matter.
  4. This should be on dry bark, if possible, in a spot where the bark dries quickly after rainfall. Sunny to semi-shady areas are optimal.
  5. Crush the fruit between your fingers and spread its contents on the desired spot.
  6. Germination takes place in March of the following year. After another one to two years, leaves will appear. The first mistletoe flowers will appear after six to seven years.
Crushed dry mistletoe
Mistletoe is used both in conventional and alternative medicine [Photo: hjochen/ Shutterstock.com]

6. How is the plant used therapeutically?

In medicine, the whole mistletoe plant is used. The lectins and viscotoxins found in the plant are used in medicines to help with lowering blood pressure (often in combination with hawthorn), stimulating the immune system and triggering desired local inflammations. In traditional and alternative medicine practices, mistletoe is attributed with additional abilities which have not yet been proven. These include its use in alternative cancer therapy.

No house is complete without a Christmas tree during the festive season. Find out why a potted Christmas tree is the more sustainable choice.

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