It’s all very well talking about the ‘bumper crop’ and too much mistletoe if you’re in a mistletoe-rich area (i.e Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, and Somerset) but most of the UK has very little mistletoe. So the situation across most of the country is, as usual, too little mistletoe.
Why so much in some areas over others? It’s all to do with mistletoe’s preferred climate, which means it thrives and spreads naturally in key counties but only grows, and rarely spreads, if introduced to other areas. It’s a bit mysterious, as it will readily grow, if encouraged, virtually anywhere, it just doesn’t spread far. There is evidence that spread is increasing, and that distribution patterns may be changing, but that’s another story, covered at other times in this blog.
For now I just want to think about where and how it grows, and how you can encourage it if you want to have it. One very significant advantage of growing it in an area where it doesn’t spread naturally is that you don’t need to worry about controlling it. In its key areas it can become a pest – but outside those areas it’s a (relatively) well-behaved curiosity.
Some, possibly most, of the isolated populations outside mistletoe’s key areas, will have been deliberately grown, often established centuries ago in parkland locations by wealthy landowners. Whether they knew how to do it or whether they took decades over it is not recorded. I suspect some of them took decades. Even today gardening experts often advise that mistletoe is hard to establish and that they’ve been trying for years without success. That would be because, sorry garden experts, they’re doing it wrong. It is easy when you know how.
Monty Don, one of our most popular garden gurus, has been giving somewhat incorrect advice on mistletoe for years, and I’ve taken him to task in this blog on more than one occasion. So it was interesting to see, in his piece for the Daily Mail a couple of days ago, that he’s giving slightly better advice now – he’s obviously been reading it up!
But even so he still gets a lot wrong (thinks mistletoe grows to the centre of the branch, thinks mistletoe kills off individual branches along with itself, etc etc). One very interesting point he makes is that his orchard trees, planted twenty years ago in mistletoe country, have only recently started growing mistletoe. This observation can be used to make two important points – firstly that mistletoe does spread surprisingly slowly from tree to tree, even in mistletoe country, if left to itself. And secondly, that if he had actually planted it (perhaps he did but with the wrong method?) he could have 20-year old mistletoe plants by now. He’s missed out on so much mistletoe!
Which brings me back to the point that mistletoe is fairly easy to grow if you know how. The primary stumbling block for most people is that they plant seeds at Christmas. Understandable, as that’s when they have mistletoe. But just because that’s when we pick mistletoe it doesn’t mean the berries/seeds are ripe. It’s being picked and sold for decoration, not for propagation. If you want to grow it you need ripe berries with ripe seeds picked off the plant in early spring…
The other main problem for many would-be mistletoe growers, is that they plant the seed ‘in the tree’ as if they are planting a seed in soil. Indeed many gardening texts and gurus insist that you should cut a flap or hole in the bark and stick the seed into it. Understandable if you’re conditioned to thinking that seeds need to be buried. But completely bonkers for mistletoe, if you give it just a moment’s thought. Natural spread, which obviously works fine (otherwise there would be no mistletoe at all), is by birds wiping/excreting the sticky seeds onto a tree. They don’t cut holes and ‘bury’ them, so why should we? It’s obviously not required – and, in biological terms, is a disaster. The seeds need light to germinate and grow, so ‘burying’ them in the bark is a sure-fire way to kill them off. And there’s a reason why they’re sticky – it’s to enable them to stick to the host bark. They don’t need wedging into cracks or holes.
So, there you have it. Too little mistletoe? Get out there and plant some! And do it right!
For detailed advice on techniques have a look at the Mistletoe Pages website here