Grow a Mistletoe Shrub

The evergreen mistletoe plant has become an essential part of our Christmas tradition, and everyone loves its romantic connotations.
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Live Mistletoe

Live Mistletoe

Photo by: DK - A Greener Christmas © 2008 Dorling Kindersley Limited

DK - A Greener Christmas, 2008 Dorling Kindersley Limited

The bushy mistletoe shrub is actually a partial parasite that grows in the branches of old trees: It extracts essential nutrients and water by pushing its roots under the bark of the host tree. Although it is slow-growing and can be hard to establish, mistletoe is worth cultivating if you enjoy its clusters of smooth, bright green, oval leaves and waxy white berries in your home at Christmas time.

Mistletoe (Viscum album) reproduces naturally when birds — such as phainopepla — eat the berries and excrete the seeds onto the bark of a host tree, where they germinate. Popular host trees are those with soft bark, particularly apple trees, as well as hawthorn, linden and poplar trees. After attaching itself to the host, a young plant produces leaves after the first year. Only two new branches with a pair of leaves at each tip grow every year.

Propagating Mistletoe

The best time to propagate mistletoe is between March and April, when the seeds are fully ripe. If you can't find fresh berries from a living plant, preserve some Christmas sprigs with berries in a jar of water in the window of a cold, frost-free room until the end of February. Use the sticky glue of the berry to attach it to the side or underside of an apple tree branch about eight inches in diameter. The higher up a tree the branch is, and the more sunlight the plant gets, the better. Wind some wool or twine around the branch to mark the site and leave the plant to establish naturally. It's worth applying 15 or more berries to your host tree, as mistletoe requires male and female plants to produce berries. The germination rate is also quite low (only one in 10 seeds becomes a plant), and some berries may fall off or be eaten by birds. It will take four to five years for the plant to produce berries.

To decorate your home with mistletoe, cut a few stems from the shrub with a pair of shears, bind the base of the stems with some twine and hang the bundle from a ceiling light or above a doorway.

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