How does your mistletoe grow?

Many people decorate their houses with mistletoe at Christmas time and it provides a good excuse for a cheeky kiss. But do you know how much this festive evergreen relies on bird poo? Mistletoe by Katie Fuller

Unlike money, mistletoe grows on trees. It is a parasite, living off the nutrients and water in the tree that it grows on. You can find mistletoe growing on the branches of hawthorns, apple trees, poplars, limes and conifers. Although mistletoe is poisonous for humans, it doesn't kill the trees that it grows on and doesn't harm them if it's managed properly.

But how does mistletoe get up into tree branches to start growing in the first place?

Pooh sticks

Well, a clue is in the name. The word mistletoe comes from the Anglo-Saxon words mistel (meaning dung) and tan (meaning stick). Blackcaps and mistle thrushes eat the berries then perch on tree branches and – ahem – 'deposit' the seeds.

The berries are filled with a sticky, white fluid, and after gorging themselves, the birds sometimes wipe their beaks clean on the branches. This puts yet more seeds on the tree.

Because the seeds are sticky, they don't fall off the branches. They sprout where they land. Within six weeks, they germinate and then pierce the tree bark with roots. Five years later, the seeds will have grown into a plant.

Good for wildlife

As well as offering birds food through the winter months, the mistletoe is good for beetles and the very rare mistletoe marble moth. This insect lays its eggs only on mistletoe plants. It looks like bird poo so it blends in nicely with all the actual bird poo in these trees! It’s so rare that it receives targeted conservation work as part of the Government’s UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

Berries under threat?

Mistletoe thrives in orchards, but the number of traditional orchards across the UK has been falling. Some conservationists are warning that we could lose mistletoe for good. 

It is only the female plants that grow berries, so these are the only plants that are harvested. This means male plants are left to grow, and the balance has now been tipped dramatically. Trees now have mainly male plants growing on them - bad news for trees and mistletoe.

Do your bit for mistletoe

Mistletoe expert Jonathan Briggs has put together a quick survey about mistletoe in the UK. Even if you only have plastic mistletoe, he would like to hear from you. Your results will be used to help plan mistletoe conservation work.

Grow your own

If the birds aren't doing their thing in your garden, the Mistletoe Pages have tips on how to grow your own mistletoe.

Merry kissmas!