It's the most romantic plant - and for good reason. But before you can get a kiss under the mistletoe, here's how to grow the plant ahead of Christmas
Mistletoe is a term used to refer to the species Viscum album. Viscum comes from the same root as viscous, meaning sticky, while album, of course, means white - which describes the ripe berries very well.
The common name is also illuminating: the mistletoe is derived from the Anglo-Saxon mistel, meaning dung, and tan, meaning twig. So, literally, it's the dung-on-a-twig plant. Which pretty much describes what happens a little while after a bird eats the berries.
Mistletoe is a partial parasite, which means that although its small green leaves provide the host plant with energy through photosynthesis, it also sends a root under the bark into its host and gathers nutrients there. And this is where those sticky berries come in.
After the bird, usually a mistle thrush, eats the berries, they're excreted with much of their sticky coating still attached. So as soon as they land on a branch they stick, through all weathers, and are ready to germinate in February and March in exactly the right place.
First they attach themselves and develop their connection with the host plant, then the following year they produce leaves and start to grow into a recognisable young plant. Each year, individual shoots produce just two new branches with one pair of leaves at the tip of each; so progress is slow.
The main host plants are apple, hawthorn, lime and poplar trees, although mistletoe is occasionally seen on maple, sycamore, willow, crab apples, false acacia, ash, oak, plum, rowan and even cotoneaster. Mistletoe is much more common in gardens, orchards and parks than in wild areas, which is encouraging to those wanting to grow their own.
So choose your tree but keep in mind that a few clumps of mistletoe can severely debilitate a thriving apple tree. There are so many clumps of mistletoe in the apple tree in my old garden that the tree seems green in mid-winter - but it produces few apples.
How to grow mistletoe
Avoid berries that have done their seasonal duty hanging under a light in the living room for two weeks. They will probably have dried out. They can be revived by soaking overnight in water, but picking fresh berries - pure white, not unripe green or yellow - in late winter is more likely to lead to success.
Alternatively, keep some sprigs from the holiday season in a jar of water in the window of a cold but frost-free room until February.
Branches about 20cm (8in) in diameter make ideal hosts as the bark is thin enough for the germinating seeds to penetrate, but substantial enough to support the new plant, in terms of both nutrients and weight. Using the berries' own "glue", attach them to the side or underside of the branch, then tie a piece of wool or twine around the branch to mark the site.
As some berries may fall off or be eaten, apply a couple of dozen at a time. Not much will seem to happen until the following spring when the first leaves should appear.
It is sometimes recommended that a cut be made in the branch, or that the bark be lifted to accommodate the berries. While this brings the seed into more immediate contact with the tree, the wound may provide a starting place for disease to become established. So it is better to leave the plants to get started naturally.
Then, you wait. It usually takes four years from sowing until berries are produced and, as male and female flowers are formed on different plants, you will need one to carry the berries and another to provide the pollen if you want to develop a colony.
Try sowing berries on shrubs and trees in the rose family. If mistletoe will grow on apples, rowans and cotoneasters, why not try pears, pyracantha and big old shrub roses?
This article was originally published in 2007.