Regarded as a symbol of peace, love and fertility, mistletoe was also used as a defence against evil spirits. Today, it is most often used to elicit a Christmas kiss, although its name is derived from two Anglo-Saxon words: mistle, which means dung, and tan which means stick or twig. ‘Poo on a stick’ is hardly the most romantic connotation, so should we love or fear mistletoe?
History tells us that mistletoe was beloved by druids who used the plant in medicines and in some parts of the country it is still hung year-round in the belief that it will ward off evil spirits and bring good luck to the household. The tradition of kissing beneath the mistletoe dates back as far as the 16th century. The original custom states that a berry must be picked from the sprig of mistletoe before the person could be kissed. When all the berries had gone there would be no more kissing!
Before Christmas trees became popular a common form of Christmas decoration was the Kissing Bough. Made of five wooden hoops that made the shape of a ball, the hoops were covered with holly, ivy, rosemary, bay, fir or other evergreen plants. Inside the hoops were hung red apples (often hung from red ribbons). A candle was usually placed inside the ball and the final flourish was the addition of a large bunch of magical mistletoe hanging from the bottom of the ball. Most of the kissing traditions relate to Norse legend, and the fertility aspect to the evergreen mistletoe growing on the bare host tree throughout the winter. The fertility imagery is further enhanced by the mistletoe’s shape – the forking paired branches, paired leaves and berries hinting at sexual organs.
There are in fact 1,000 sub-tropical species of mistletoe that grow worldwide but Viscum album is the only one native to Britain. Often appearing as giant green baubles in the bare branches of wintering trees, it is most commonly found on apple trees and is a vital source of food for birds and insects. However, mistletoe itself is a hemiparasite, dispersed by the feeding birds and if allowed to grow unchecked it can severely damage its host by hijacking water and minerals from the branches. Despite needing trees, mistletoe is not a woodland plant, preferring individual trees in open ground so favourite habitats include gardens, apple orchards and churchyards. Before woodland clearance mistletoe would probably have been far less abundant than today.
Propagating & Harvesting
• Plant mistletoe seeds on the bark of a host tree between late January and March, but you’ll need some patience. It takes a while for them to establish themselves. You can keep Christmas berries fresh by detaching them and leaving them in a cool place, but not in the dark and never in the fridge.
• For best results use fresh berries. If the berries have been stored, rehydrate them for a few hours in a little water. Whether fresh or stored, the seed needs to be squeezed out of the berry – you’ll find they come out enclosed in a ball of sticky jelly-like viscin. Collect several of these sticky seeds on your fingers. You’ll find they stick onto you rather well, and this is a convenient place to keep whilst planting on the tree. Try to remove as much of the jelly-like gluey viscin as possible, as the seeds seem to germinate better when fairly clean, and still stick on perfectly well with only a little glue remaining. Seeds do not need to be cut into the bark or pushed under the bark which is actually counterproductive as they need a healthy intact host bark to reproduce.
• Choose a host tree. Bearing in mind mistletoe’s preference of apple first, then poplars, lime and hawthorn. Avoid older branches and the trunk as they are more difficult for the mistletoe
• Seeds need light to germinate and male and female seeds are also needed for fertilisation, so plant five or more seeds on every branch.
• Leave the host tree for a minimum of 18 months without pruning.
• Expect to harvest a small amount of mistletoe within four years. After eight or ten there should be a sizeable clump or ball.
• When decorating with mistletoe you will need at least three kilos for decorating a family home!
• Why not send friends and family a special sprig of fresh mistletoe instead of a Christmas card. During World War I mistletoe was seen as a sign of peace and used extensively as decoration and appeared on many of the Christmas cards produced at that time.
Make Your Own Mistletoe Ball
One 4 or 5 inch florist foam ball
20 to 30 branches of mistletoe
• Soak the ball in water. Submerge it for 15 minutes until saturated.
• Cut floral wire into 1 ½-inch strips. Bend pieces into a U-shape.
• Cover the ball with moss. Secure it with the floral wire.
• Cut mistletoe into 2- to 3-inch pieces. Push the stems through the moss and directly into the foam ball.
• Starting at one end of the ribbon, fold a 10-inch loop (this will be what you use to hang the ball), and then two 8-inch loops. This will leave you with a 12-inch tail. Cut 6 inches off the tail and lay on opposite side of loops. Pinch the loops and tail together at the centre and secure with a 16-inch piece of wire bent in half. Firmly twist the wire until you create a stem sturdy enough to insert in mistletoe ball.
Keep mistletoe out of reach of children and pets, as the plant and berries are poisonous.