By Sue Curnock
December is the perfect time of year to find a mysterious plant steeped in tradition and folklore which appears to grow out of thin air. Mistletoe is a hemi-parasite which means it relies on a host species to supply water and minerals, but can still produce energy on its own through photosynthesis. It is most frequently found on cultivated apple trees, but also likes poplar and many other tree species. It is best seen during the winter months when great tangles of it hang from the trees’ bare branches.
Traditionally, mistletoe is used to steal a kiss at Christmas. The correct etiquette is to remove one berry for each kiss and when all the berries are gone the kissing stops! This tradition was probably inspired by mistletoe’s ancient association with fertility. An evergreen, it was often thought of as sustaining the ‘life force’ of its deciduous host tree through winter.
Although the berries are poisonous to humans, mistletoe is very important for wildlife; the mistle thrush is one of the only birds to recognise the ice white berries as valuable winter food. In turn, the birds help new plants to take root by spreading seeds to other trees, either through their droppings or from wiping their beaks on the tree bark to clean off the sticky seeds. More recently, blackcaps have also become important for mistletoe’s seed dispersal. Traditionally they migrate south for the winter, but now some blackcaps are thought to be migrating into the UK from colder parts of Europe and feeding on the fat rich pith of mistletoe.
If you would like to help conserve this plant, you could encourage some to grow in your garden. But you will need to keep it in check; mistletoe requires management to keep it and the host tree healthy. To plant your kiss you need to have a suitable host tree, such as apple, pear, lime hawthorn or poplar. White, plump berries work best and can be rubbed onto the side or underside of a branch 20mm in diameter, at least 1.5m up the tree. If all goes well you may be able to pick your own berries in a few years’ time.