The Mistletoe that’s also a Christmas Tree

Australia has many varieties of mistletoe, valuable for contributing (directly and indirectly) to local biodiversity and also well-known for their Mistletoe Birds which specialise in spreading mistletoe seeds.

But the oddest (and biggest) of them all is the Western Australian Christmas Tree – yes, that’s a tree, and it really is called a Christmas Tree – which is one of the few mistletoe species that’s adapted to parasitize its host’s roots, not its branches. So Nuytsia floribunda, to give it its formal name, looks like an independent plant – a tree or shrub just like any other.

Nuytsia floribunda in the wild, a picture by enjosmith
Nuytsia floribunda in the wild, a picture by enjosmith

Except that it isn’t – it must be attached to a host. But you can’t tell this by just looking at it.

Nuytsia flowers, a picture by Gnangarra
Nuytsia flowers, a picture by Gnangarra…

It became known as a ‘Christmas Tree’ because it flowers, rather abundantly and prettily (hence the floribunda in the name), at Christmas. Which makes sense, though it is a little odd that this ‘Christmas Tree’ is actually a mistletoe.

Distribution of Nuytsia floribunda
Distribution of Nuytsia floribunda

Nuytsia is still a fairly common sight in the bush – but recent reports suggest it is getting scarcer in urban Perth. A recent study has found that although the attractive trees were often retained when bushland was developed for housing, most have since vanished in housing and park areas. Though they do survive in areas of deliberately-retained bushland – ‘urban bushland’.

The article reporting this doesn’t really speculate on what the mechanism for the loss might be – perhaps the trees aren’t really highly valued and are removed by householders and park managers? Or perhaps there’s something more subtle going on – the ecosystem of housing and parkland areas simply not suiting the species. Perhaps their hosts are compromised in these environments?

There are, perhaps, some parallels with mistletoe in old orchards redeveloped for housing here in the UK – sometimes some of those old mistletoe-bearing orchard trees are retained within new housing developments, but they don’t always fare too well in their new environment of a private back garden or in a ‘public open space’ used as a play area.

In Perth the Wildflower Society have been urging people to value their urban Nuytsia trees, attaching QR codes to them (mistletoe interpretation dragged well and truly into the online age!) and offering Nuytsia seedlings to people who spot them.

Now, you might ask, how can you give out viable seedlings of a parasite that requires host roots to survive? Well, weirdly, Nuytsia seedlings seem quite happy parasitizing grasses – and can survive for a while doing just that. You can even buy Nuytsia seed commercially, though long-term success, beyond a few years living off some grass roots, is said to be limited. This is because mature plants seem to need more substantial hosts – Acacia trees for example. The principle is just the same as an aerial mistletoe – the Nuytsia plants don’t have proper roots as such, and need to link to other, in this case substantial (these are fairly big mistletoes!), host roots to obtain water and nutrients. The host tree(s) can be tens of metres away – Nuytsia ‘roots’ will grow a long way to find a host.

If you do want to grow your own, one final tip – don’t grow it near to underground cables. The questing underground branches of Nuytsia are well-known for damaging, having mistaken them for potential host roots, buried telecoms cables – and have caused significant damage to some Western Australian networks. So string your cables above ground – or use armoured ones.


Nuytsia might compromise your telephone connection,
but traditional European Mistletoe, Viscum album, won’t

So why not grow your own?

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Mistletoe seeds dream of a Light Christmas

Mistletoe berries - ripening to a translucent white in mid-winter, allowing light to reach the single seed inside...
Mistletoe berries – ripening to a translucent white in mid-winter, allowing light to reach the single seed inside…

Mistletoe seeds are peculiar. As, of course, is much of the rest of mistletoe’s biology. But the seeds are rarely talked about, and I thought I it was about time I wrote some notes on them here, not least as this is the time of year many people decide they want to grow their own.

I’m talking largely about European Mistletoe, Viscum album, though some of the following may well apply to other species too. And the main point I want to cover is light.

At this time of year the berries, each of which contains just one large seed, have become translucent – a sort of pearly-white. And the seed, encased inside the mucilage in the centre of the berry, is receiving light. If you squeeze the seed out, wipe off that sticky jelly and examine it, you’ll see it is bright green. It looks as if it is photosynthesising.  Already.  And it has not even germinated yet.

A freshly-squeezed seed, still in its mucilage but clearly showing its green colour
A freshly-squeezed seed, still in its mucilage but clearly showing its green colour

Now, mistletoe germination works best in the February-March-April period. So these seeds, sitting inside their little pearlescent globes, may be actively using light for another three months yet. It’s as if they each have their own private spherical greenhouse to live in through the winter months.

This implies an actual need for light – and there are, if you look through the scientific literature, several accounts that stress how the seeds need light, and how just a few weeks of darkness will kill them. This is something I’ve been aware of for years, and is an argument I used, when developing the mistletoe grow-kits for the old Tenbury Mistletoe Enterprise in 2004/5, for not keeping excess berries cut before Christmas. This seemed wasteful – but necessary. Instead we would have to always use fresh berries cut from live mistletoe in February/March – which is what we did (and still do for the EMS Grow Kits).

Seed-banks, such as those at Kew, don’t try to store mistletoe berries/seeds for the same reason – because they have very limited longevity. They will not live if stored.

But how much darkness is a problem? And how long will berries, or seeds taken out of berries, survive? Well, as a rule of thumb I’ve tended to assume only about two weeks if in the dark, though obviously much longer if in light.

We stress this in the Grow Kits we sell through the English Mistletoe Shop – suggesting the postal box is opened soon after arrival and that the clear dish of berries is kept in a light place until planted. And, for those who want to keep their own berries from Christmas mistletoe to plant in spring, I always advise somewhere cold, like a shed, but that it must also be light, like a shed window. Or even just leave the mistletoe sprig outside.

A germinating seed, with twin plants emerging from one seed, both clearly actively photosynthetic.
A germinating seed, with twin plants emerging from one seed, both clearly actively photosynthetic.

The comments above are about the berries and seeds – but what about germination? Again, you just have to look at a mistletoe seedling to realise that it is actively photosynthetic – the tiny hypocotyls that emerge from the seeds are bright green. So these need light too. Indeed, as independent plants (they are not parasitic until they have linked into the host’s vascular system) these seedlings need every resource they can get – and light is fundamental.

This instantly shows up how misguided some of the old mistletoe gardening lore is – which is often a recycled Chinese Whisper about cutting nicks in bark and inserting the seeds, as if planting them inside the tree. That’s a sure-fire way of killing the seed/seedling, as it is placing them in the dark.

No wonder such accounts often say that it is difficult to grow successfully. They’ve just advocated a method that almost guarantees the death of the seed. It’s definitely very difficult to succeed if you choose that method.

Six weeks old - but only in darkness in Week 1. Successfully germinating.
Six weeks since removal from the berry – but only in darkness in Week 1. Successfully germinating.

Last spring I experimented, in a fairly basic way, with germinating seeds kept in differing periods of darkness, to see how they fared. I needed the germinating seeds to be portable – so couldn’t use actual trees. But as mistletoe seeds will happily germinate on anything (they don’t know what is or isn’t a tree until they fail to find any host tissue to connect to!) I used a large number of petri dishes, each with about 20 seeds, 10 stuck to the top half, 10 in the bottom half.

Six weeks old - but in darkness until Week 5. Not germinating at all.
Six weeks since removal from the berry – but in darkness until Week 5. Not germinating at all.

The seeds were brought out of darkness in batches over six weeks – and results were fairly convincing: The seeds brought out in weeks 0, 1 and 2 germinated readily, but those left in darkness until weeks 3, 4, 5 and 6 mostly failed to germinate at all.

All were kept for the rest of the summer (germinating seeds can survive some months without a host as long as they are sprayed with water occasionally) and there was no major change – the seeds exposed to 2+ weeks of darkness simply did not grow.

I will be repeating the experiment, with some refinements, next year. In the meantime, here are some close-ups of the successfully germinating seeds – in all their weird mistletoe glory. Many are polyembryonic – so where you see 2, or even 3, shoots from one seed you are seeing twins, or triplets, emerging. I think I did say they were peculiar?



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Back to the First Contact (with parasitic plants – though not mistletoe)

Various species of Orobanche, the Broomrapes, which parasite the roots of their host plants. Ivy Broomrape is on the right.,
Various species of Orobanche, the Broomrapes, which parasite the roots of their host plants. Ivy Broomrape is on the right.

I went back in time, sort-of, last summer when I re-visited the scene of my First Contact – with parasitic plants, not aliens. But not mistletoe – this was a different parasite…

Randan Wood, near Dodford in Worcestershire, was where I first saw Ivy Broomrape, Orobanche hederae, a root parasite of Ivy.  The occasion was sometime in the mid 1970s when I would have been about 14. The day was a little unusual – a variant of my usual (but odd for a teenager) habit of walking out alone on Sunday afternoons to explore new footpaths and find new plants.  On this particular day I was meeting Fred Fincher, an elderly (to me, but probably only in his fifties) naturalist who lived in the wood. He wrote a column on natural history in the local paper and I had invited myself, as a fellow naturalist, to his house (not much more than a hut) in the woods.

Ivy Broomrape, Orobanche hederae, flower spikes
Ivy Broomrape, Orobanche hederae, flower spikes

It’s probably not the sort of thing teenagers do these days – visiting strange men who live in little huts in the woods, several miles walk from home, but that’s what I did. Fred made me a Ribena drink (with v cloudy water I recall – am not sure what the supply was) and we sat down to talk about plants. At the time I had a particular interest in fungi, and he showed me his library of mycological identification guides including the original Danish (I think) edition of Lange and Hora’s publication (which had become, in translation, one of the first Collins guide to fungi).

And we had a potter around outside his little house, looking at interesting plants. One of which, in the ivy at the foot of the house walls, was Orobanche hederae, whose chlorophyll-free flower spikes were conspicuous. My recollection is that Fred said he had sown seed there, amongst the ivy, and was really pleased it had grown.

That was my only direct encounter with Fred but it may have a lot to answer for. Just a few years later, when studying botany at Bristol, I chose to do my final year project on Orobanche hederae, which was surprisingly common around the Avon Gorge. I completely messed up the project, which was supposed to be about the haustorial structures connecting parasite to host roots. My microtome cutting technique failed to section any of these structures properly (sorry Dr Gledhill) so the project became a mish-mash of increasingly desperate other trivia on Orobanche. This, despite dooming me to a poor grade, left me fascinated by parasitic plants – and the rest, as they say, is history…

Rosedene, Greater Dodford Chartist Settlement, August 2014
Rosedene, Great Dodford Chartist Settlement, August 2014

I never met Fred again, and he died many years ago. His library survives, bequeathed to the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust and kept in their offices at Smite near Droitwich. And Randan Wood, which he owned (originally bought by his parents as a chicken farm if I recall correctly) is now a Worcestershire Wildlife Trust Reserve.

So what happened in summer 2014? My time travel? Well, we were holidaying in Dodford, amongst the Chartist cottages, staying in Rosedene, the one restored by the National Trust, and a walk to Randan seemed essential. I was a little nervous, not being sure what was left of Fred’s place. So I was pleasantly surprised, but also a little shocked, to find it still stood, derelict and unloved, but recognisable still with fitted bookcases still in situ. And there was lots of Ivy, everywhere.

At the house itself we couldn’t find any Orobanche, which seemed disappointing – but in the edge of the track, just a few yards away, we found mature flowering spikes. These were by now (this was August) setting seed, so I gathered some in an envelope (Orobanche has very fine powdery seeds) to scatter amongst some ivy roots at home.


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The Mistletoe Rustlers

Mistletoe rustling is, even today, rife at this time of year – but it was once much more common. The huge popularity of mistletoe from the mid 19th to mid 20th centuries gave it a rather higher financial value than it has today. In 2012 I posted a newspaper cutting about one theft, in 1887, and since then I’ve come across many dozens of others, from the 1860s onwards.

Here are a few examples – which may make a modern mistletoe rustler think twice…

Here’s the brief story of Edwin Buttery, mistletoe rustler of Boughton (the one in Nottinghamshire). He took his mistletoe from nearby Thoresby Park, then the seat of Earl Manvers (and now a hotel). Mistletoe thefts from country parks were a common phenomenon as, outside of the SW midlands, these were (and are) sometimes the only places mistletoe grows in abundance, usually on the lime trees and spreading to others. But what happened to Edwin? Well, here he is, in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on Dec 30th 1869 – granted rather expensive bail, to re-appear later…

Sheffield Daily Telegraph 30 Dec1869 Theft Worksop

And he’s back, on 11th January 1870, to be sentenced… to one month in prison with a hard labour!

Sheffield Independent 11 Jan1870 Theft again

Did this put a stop to it as the Chairman hoped?  Well, no-one was caught with mistletoe in Thoresby Park for a few years, but in 1875 George and Hannah Green were caught taking on the challenge. George missed the first hearing on 2nd January 1875 as he was down the pub (probably trying to avoid the Earl, who was on the bench), so this too was adjourned…

Derbyshire Times 2 Jan1875 Theft Greens edit1

On 14th January George and Hannah both turned up, but came armed with a defence counsel and tried to argue their way out of it on a technicality! This resulted in a fine of just £2 plus costs – a much better result than poor Edwin had just five years earlier.

Sheffield Daily Telegraph 14 Jan1875 Theft Worksop

There were many other similar cases in this period, and there’s no space here to add much more, but here’s one that I particularly like, this time from proper mistletoe country in Worcestershire and dated July 1902. Why July? Well the theft took place in December 1901 – but the defendant managed to slip away to America immediately afterwards (possibly worrying about a month’s hard labour if caught?). But on his return seven months later, possibly unaware of an arrest warrant, he is promptly arrested and tried! The bench (rather generously) dismissed the case, though not before the prosecutor asked whether he had fled to America ‘because of this horrible crime’. The value of mistletoe in this ‘horrible crime’ was 1 shilling (5 pence).

Worcestershire Chronicle Saturday 12 July 1902 theft


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Mistletoe harvesting in the press

First page of the recent Telegraph article
First page of the recent Telegraph article – to see the full article see images below.

There was an impressive feature in Saturday’s Telegraph on mistletoe harvesting, focussing on Guy and Jacqui Neath, who have a long-established business in Abberley (near Tenbury) supplying supermarkets with mistletoe. Their big customer this season is Marks & Spencer but they do supply many others. It’s not the first time they’ve featured in the press (they even appeared in comic strip form in Waitrose’s magazine a few years ago) but I thought this was a surprisingly good piece – I hope they’re pleased with it, I would be.

And, for a weekend supplement feature, it was reassuringly accurate, apart from a rubbish example of a mistletoe haustorium (host-parasite interface) and a rather odd explanation of how mistletoe establishes (cracks are not necessary, neither is an older tree), covering the madness (for mistletoe retailers) of the Christmas rush of orders and the benefit, to the orchard trees, of the harvest, effectively helping to save mistletoe infested trees.

Talking of which, the Mistletoe League Project, aiming to gather information on just this mistletoe management issue, is still undergoing a bit of a re-vamp, but I hope to have some news on that very soon. The old website at is due to disappear any time now, having been replaced by a wizzier new one.

Going back to that Telegraph feature it was, despite being huge, a little hard to spot, deep inside the Gardening supplement. The Telegraph readers I know hadn’t even seen it until I told them about it. So, if you want to read it I’ve pasted it in below. Note the interesting tips (with upturned wine glasses) on using mistletoe in table decorations. Click the images to open larger versions as a slide show.

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Mistletoe Auctions 2014

The mistletoe lots laid out ready for the auction
The mistletoe lots laid out ready for the auction

The second of Tenbury Wells’ traditional three mistletoe auctions took place earlier today. At a new venue this year – Burford House Garden Store, just down the road from Tenbury itself.

A refreshing change from the uninspiring windswept sites that have hosted the auctions in recent years – so well done to auctioneer Nick Champion getting the site agreed and to Burford House for allowing it.

I just wish auction2014GV2Nick would signpost the sales as Mistletoe Sales – as mistletoe is what they’re best-known for – he seems to have a never-ending supply of ‘Holly Sales’ signs he always uses instead. Perhaps he got them cheap, or perhaps it’s simply that Holly is a shorter word and easier to put on a road sign.

Auction underway - the scrum around the lines of mistletoe lots
Auction underway – the scrum around the lines of mistletoe lots

The downside, for Tenbury itself, is that the venue (like other recent ones) offers little chance of extra footfall in town. Despite the auction being crowded Tenbury town was eerily quiet when I dropped in at lunchtime. In the ‘old days’ (less than 10 years ago) when the auctions were in town at the old cattle market site the town would be heaving with people on mistletoe sales days. All the more need for the Mistletoe Festival to attract people into town – and the big day for that this year is next Saturday (6th Dec). For details click here.

But back to the sales. There was a convincingly high number of mistletoe lots this week, which always seems good, and more, I’m told, than last week. All of it very well berried. Some variable quality in presentation, as always, but that’s what makes the auctions so interesting – the variation in the lots and the appearance/condition of mistletoe involved, that you can study (if that’s your thing – it works for me!) as you wander up and down the rows of lots prior to the sales beginning.

As usual there were lots of photographers, and the location is rather more photogenic than previous years – with the lots laid out on the orchard-style lawn on the north side of Burford House. Though with low sun in the south there were no chances for long shots with the house in frame.

A buyer wheeling his wins to his van...
A buyer wheeling his wins to his van…
Another buyer wheeling his wins to his van...
Another buyer wheeling his wins to his van…

Who buys all this mistletoe? Where does it all go?

I spotted several London buyers and also regulars like Nick from mail-order agents intermistletoe in Suffolk, plus Julian Wotsisname from Pershore, and that chap from the Shropshire Wildlife Trust buying for their shop, and, er, lots of completely anonymous people.

To get some feel for who they were, and how far they came, I did a quick trip round the car-park looking for branded vehicles. Not many of them – though a lot of unmarked vans, 4x4s and trailers. Here are some of the branded ones:

That small sample suggests they still come from all over the country to buy Tenbury mistletoe – so that tradition seems fairly secure.

Interested in prices? Prices seemed fairly high today, though that’s only going by what you can hear of the bidding, and it’s difficult to relate that to what’s on the ground sometimes. If you want full stats on prices etc you can download auction reports from Nick Champion’s website here. Last week’s report is here:

EMShopWant to know more about mistletoe? Visit the Mistletoe Directory page for links to mistletoe information, and to sites where you can buy grow-kits, books and cards…