Phoradendron leucarpum, and other species
If you look up during the winter, when all the deciduous trees have dropped their leaves, you might spot something still growing up there, tucked in the bare branches.
It might be mistletoe, that beautiful parasite that we smooch under during the holidays.
Okay, not all of us. I remember dodging around any doorway that held the seasonal menace. I wasn’t about to be snagged by an aunt for a sloppy smooch on my cheek!
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But if you see these evergreen plants in the landscape, you can propagate seeds to spread the holiday terror! Er, I mean joy…
In addition to their infamous reputation as winter holiday decor, these plants are invaluable to wildlife and they’ve long been used in medicinal remedies.
People of some cultures even believed they were a magical cure-all that could ward off or heal any disease. Not true – but pretty special, right?
If you’re interested in bringing this plant to your garden and home, here’s what we’ll discuss to help you on your journey:
What You’ll Learn
There’s something to be said about the value of trying something new.
What could be more different than gardening in the sky, and cultivating plants on the branches of a tree? If you’re ready for the adventure, get ready. Here we go!
What Is Mistletoe?
Phoradendron is a genus of parasitic plants native to all parts of North America, and these are commonly known as mistletoe.
“Mistletoe” also refers to plants in the Viscum genus, but these plants aren’t native to the US. They’re introduced species from Europe and far less common.
V. album was first introduced into California in 1900 by Luther Burbank and it has since spread throughout Sonoma County, but it hasn’t become invasive like some introduced species. There are also a few known patches in coastal British Columbia.
By the way, if you haven’t heard of Luther Burbank before, he was a prolific amateur horticulturalist in the late 1800s and early 1900s who worked to breed edible plants that would thrive in the West. He basically wanted to be the Thomas Edison of plants.
Burbank bred a tomato-potato hybrid and is directly responsible for Russet potatoes, which were bred from one of his creations.
The resulting ‘Russet Burbank’ is the one that commercial growers favor, especially those in the Pacific Northwest, and it’s the most popular commercially grown potato in the US. But he’s also responsible for the Himalayan blackberry that is smothering so many parts of the West Coast.
I go back and forth between cursing him and thanking him. Each time a new blackberry plant pops up in my yard I see red. When I munch on a sun-warmed berry during the summer, I feel much more forgiving.
Burbank was also a proponent of eugenics, so back to cursing him. But I digress…
We’ll focus on the North American species in this guide, but if you’re interested in the European variety, it can be grown similarly.
Just keep in mind that it’s usually better to stick with native plants when you’re cultivating them outside. It would be a shame if some European mistletoe escaped your yard and choked out native species.
So, back to our friends in the Phoradendron genus. In Greek, “phor” means thief and “dendro” means tree. That captures the spirit of this genus of plants perfectly – they steal nutrients from their host.
To be completely accurate, all types of broadleaf mistletoe (P. macrophyllum and others in the genus) are somewhat parasitic, and known officially as plants that are “hemiparasitic with facultative parasitic behavior.”
That means they can feed off the sap of their host plant, but can survive independently when necessary.
What makes them semi-parasites, rather than true parasites, is that they grow independent roots and leaves, and they can photosynthesize. Parasites are entirely dependent on the host plant and can’t photosynthesize on their own.
American or oak mistletoe (P. leucarpum syn. P. serotinum and P. flavescens) is native to the eastern part of the US as far south and west as Texas, and as far north as New Jersey. It has naturalized throughout the American Southwest, California, and Oregon.
Others on the Pacific Coast shouldn’t feel left out of the native mistletoe club though.
Pacific mistletoe (P. villosum) grows wild from southern Washington south through Mexico. It can be cultivated in the same way as these other species and is extremely similar to its eastern counterpart.
In the high desert of the West, P. juniperinum is the common species. It grows on junipers.
There are also many dwarf mistletoe species of the Arceuthobium genus found throughout North America, primarily in the West. These plants reproduce not only by spreading through bird poop, but they have berries that burst and spread their seed dozens of feet away.
They’re largely leafless, so you probably aren’t going to want them as part of your holiday decor. These plants hang out in conifers and are considered a nuisance species in some areas.
We differentiate other varieties of mistletoe from the dwarf species commonly by describing them as leafy or broadleaf mistletoe.
Mistletoes send out rootlike structures known as haustoria into host trees to draw nutrients. Kind of like a vampire, but less fancy. But they also use their green, oval-shaped leaves to photosynthesize and produce nutritious glucose.
While rare, there have been instances where the host tree dies back entirely but the mistletoe on it continues to thrive. So it doesn’t absolutely need a host, but why would you turn down a free meal?
These evergreen plants have oval-shaped, medium green or olive green leaves and form masses that range in size, but are generally about 18 to 24 inches tall and wide. The stems are succulent before terminating in a woody base.
These plants mostly grow on apple, hawthorn, lime, poplar, maple, crab apple, ash, walnut, cotoneaster, and willow trees. Technically, it can grow on almost any tree or shrub. But if you’re hoping to find some mistletoe in the wild, look for these species.
Now, when you hear the word “parasitic,” it’s natural to panic and decide to rip all the offending plants out. But mistletoe is only a mild burden, and if the tree is healthy, it will be fine.
Plus, these plants have lots of beneficial aspects. The local wildlife will love it, and both squirrels and birds eat the berries. In warm regions where pollinators are active during the winter months, it provides a much-needed source of nutrition.
P. leucarpum is the only host for thicket (Callophrys spinetorum), Johnson’s (C. johnsoni), and great purple hairstreaks (Atlides halesus), meaning it is the only plant the larvae of these beautiful butterflies feed on.
Phainopepla birds, the only variety of silky flycatchers seen in the US, rely on mistletoes almost entirely for food in the winter, and they’re also essential to cedar waxwings and Euphonia finches.
Native mistletoes are such a vital part of a healthy forest that they’re considered keystone species by the US Geological Survey, and they don’t pose a threat to other native plants in most areas. The plants spread slowly, and a patch might only expand a few feet per year.
Only female plants produce berries, which are white. The specific epithet of oak mistletoe, leucarpum, describes this characteristic. “Leuc” means white and “carp” means fruit in Greek.
If you were expecting red berries on your sprig of greenery, look to the red-berried species, V. cruciatum.
Males have no berries but they do produce flowers with pollen.
Butterflies, bees, and ants pollinate the inconspicuous yellow inflorescences, which bloom in fall and winter, and birds spread the sticky seeds to other trees.
If you’ve ever noticed this plant on a bare deciduous tree, pay attention to the location and pattern. It closely mimics the appearance of a bunch of birds perching in a tree.
In fact, that’s where the name comes from. “Misteltan” is the Anglo-Saxon name for the plant. “Mistel” means poop (or dung) and “tan” means stick. It’s bird poop on a stick!
The Viscum genus contains the plants responsible for mistletoe’s fearsome toxic reputation and they’re at least 10 times as toxic as the North American species.
While I certainly wouldn’t recommend eating the berries, it probably wouldn’t hurt you if you ate a few from the North American native species, causing gastrointestinal upset rather than poisoning. But if you eat some of the European mistletoe? You’re in trouble.
While it isn’t as toxic as its European counterpart, consuming large quantities can cause vomiting, difficulty breathing, and decreased blood pressure and pulse. It’s toxic to dogs, cats, and horses. So, again, don’t eat this plant.
Cultivation and History
There are over 1,300 species of mistletoe plants, but Viscum and Phoradendron are the two most commonly grown and used by humans, and the history between the two is as different as their native locations on the planet.
Native North American people imbue mistletoe with much different lore than Europeans.
Of course, North Americans who descended from European people continue to carry the lore practiced by the Druid and ancient Norse people as well. Same common name, similar plants, two very different stories.
The Druids believed V. album plants found growing on an oak tree could be used to heal any ailment, and that it contained magical properties. It was also used to promote vitality and fertility in humans and animals. People wore it in amulets to ward off disease.
Let’s be honest, it’s easy to see how you’d assign this plant a measure of magical properties. It’s seemingly impervious to the whims of nature. As all the other leaves around it fall, it continues to thrive without the soil we typically imagine all plants need.
The idea of kissing someone under the mistletoe?
That likely started in Norse culture, where people believed that the goddess of love, Frigg (or Frigga) celebrated the resurrection of her son Baldur after he was killed by Loki using a mistletoe arrow. She showed her joy at her son’s return by kissing those who walked beneath a tree laden with the plant.
How it moved from there to a common practice among the lower classes in the Middle Ages before spreading to the middle classes during the 18th century has been lost to time.
There are various known practices surrounding kissing under the mistletoe, including the idea that you can’t refuse a kiss, you must pluck one berry for each kiss, and if a young girl sleeps with a sprig under her pillow she will dream of her future husband.
Meanwhile, Indigenous North Americans use the various native species primarily for medicine and in religious ceremonies.
Cherokee people use it to treat headaches, epileptic episodes, high blood pressure, and to cure lovesickness – there’s that love theme again! Mendocino people use it to aid painful limbs and joints.
Pomo people have long used it to delay menstruation, and Kawaiisu use it as an abortifacient. Navajo people, who call the masses of these plants found in tree branches “baskets on high,” use them to get rid of warts.
In more recent history, the plant was admired by settlers moving into the territory for its tenacity, leading Oklahoma to name it the official state floral emblem in 1893. This is the oldest of the state’s recognized symbols, adopted prior to statehood in 1907.
Today, European mistletoe is widely regarded as a natural therapy for cancer and it is even covered by medical insurance in Germany.
However, Edzard Ernst, former professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, looked at the many available studies examining the efficacy of mistletoe as a treatment for cancer and found little to no evidence that it helps – it might even cause harm. He published his findings in the BMJ in 2006.
As with all natural remedies, talk to a doctor, be skeptical of cures lacking high-quality research to back them up, and remember that natural medicine that has been rigorously tested and proven is usually just called “medicine.”
These plants aren’t widely cultivated, but they’re pretty easy to find in nature.
P. leucarpum is the plant collected for holiday decor in the US, most commonly in Texas today. So if you find a sprig at your local grocer, that’s probably what you’re looking at.
To propagate mistletoe from seed, don’t use the berries from a sprig that you purchased at the store. You need to find a wild plant to harvest berries from.
Wait until early spring to harvest the berries to ensure that they’re fully mature.
Once you’ve gathered berries from a wild plant, find a healthy, mature tree growing in full sunshine. This may sound weird, given that mistletoe grows inside the shady canopy of a tree, but it needs full sun during the winter when the trees are bare.
Obviously, you’ll be limited by whichever trees you have available. But these plants prefer hardwood trees, especially apples. The main drawback is that a large plant can reduce your fruit harvest, so don’t choose a pear tree that’s your pride and joy for this adventure.
Soak the berries in water for about 24 hours to get them nice and soft.
Then, carefully (seriously, I don’t want to hear that you fell out of a tree trying to plant your mistletoe!) climb up the tree and find a nice, thick branch. The thicker the better – it should be at least the diameter of a broom handle.
Use a sharp, clean knife to gently lift a small segment of bark up from the branch. Stick a berry in there, but don’t press the bark back down – leave it slightly agape. The berries are sticky, so I find it easiest to place each berry at the end of a chopstick and kind of smear and poke it into the crack.
To protect the seeds you’ve sown from hungry birds, wrap some nylon or bird netting around the branch.
If you’re having a dry spring, spray the branch with water once every few days. Otherwise, let Mother Nature do her thing.
I highly recommend planting multiple seeds because not all of them will survive.
Also, you need a male and a female plant if you want to see berries with viable seeds within later, so you might as well plant as many as you can to ensure you get a good mix.
How to Grow
Once your plants are growing, you don’t have to do much. In fact, your main job is to support the host tree.
Mistletoe causes drought stress, so you need to keep your tree watered well when it’s acting as a host.
You should also keep an eye out for any pests, since some species of trees are weakened by mistletoe, and more prone to infestation as a result.
Also, you need to keep your plant under control. You can avoid drought stress and pests if you don’t let your mistletoe become too large.
Plan to trim it back once a year to limit its size and spread – we’ll cover this in more detail in the pruning section below.
You can prevent these plants from spreading throughout your tree and to new trees by removing the berries around the holidays. They’re still immature at this point and can’t germinate.
- Keep the host tree well-watered.
- Trim plants back annually.
- Limit spread by removing berries during the winter.
To prune mistletoe, you can climb up into the tree or use a telescoping tree saw. I don’t know how I’d get by without mine.
I use the Milliard Pruner/Pole Saw, which can reach up to 16 feet and has both a saw and a pruner. Grab one for yourself at Amazon.
Then, just cut away to attain the size and shape you want. Don’t worry, that sucker is going to grow right back so do as much (or as little) pruning as you want.
This should be done in the spring after you’ve harvested any berries you want to keep for planting, or to prevent further spread, but before the host tree sends out new growth.
If things start to grow out of control or your tree seems stressed, remove the plants by pruning off the branches they’re growing on.
If you pull the plants off the tree, the haustoria that are left behind can foster new growth, so it’s best to carefully remove the whole branch if you can, just to be safe.
Species to Select
You can try growing any of the Viscum or Phoradendron species, but don’t go planting the dwarf species (Arceuthobium) in your garden.
However, I would strongly suggest that you stick to the species that are native to your area.
Not only does this improve the chances that your plant will grow well, but it’s better for the environment.
Critters like bees, birds, and butterflies have evolved alongside the flora that’s native to a particular region. While many species adapt to eat and use introduced species, it’s always better to cultivate native species.
So, if you live in the eastern, central, or southern part of North America, grow P. leucarpum.
If you live in the West, grow P. juniperinum. You’ll need to choose junipers rather than deciduous hardwood trees as hosts with this species though.
Those on the West Coast can plant P. villosum.
Unless you live in an area where alien species have naturalized (like California), you won’t have to worry about figuring out what you’re harvesting. It’s going to be a native species.
Managing Pests and Disease
It’s highly unlikely that you’ll run into any pest or disease issues. Mistletoe is a tough little plant that will keep growing with no input from you.
What you need to watch for are pests and diseases on the host tree. If your mistletoe weakens the tree, it will be more susceptible to problems.
Get to know the common pests and diseases to watch for by learning more about the trees growing in your landscape.
Harvesting and Best Uses
For the first few years, your plants won’t produce berries. Don’t worry, you didn’t mess up! It just takes time for the plants to mature.
Though, of course, it’s worth another mention – if you’re only growing male plants, these won’t produce berries at all, no matter how hard you try.
Once the holidays roll around and you’re ready to add some mistletoe to your decor, head outside with a sharp pair of scissors or secateurs and simply clip off the sprigs you need.
You can refrigerate these so they will last longer. Wrap them in a paper towel and put them in a bag. They’ll stay fresh for a few weeks this way.
To make a little display, tie a few stems together with wire and then wrap a ribbon around it. Read more in our guide to arranging foliage found in the garden, or check out our tips for creating a DIY Christmas swag or holiday planter arrangement.
Quick Reference Growing Guide
|Plant Type:||Evergreen hemiparasite||Flower/Foliage Color:||Yellow (inconspicuous), white berries/green|
|Native to:||North America||Growth Rate:||Moderate|
|Hardiness (USDA Zone):||3-10||Water Needs:||Low|
|Bloom Time/Season:||Fall to winter (winter berries)||Tolerance:||Drought, freezing temperatures, pests, disease|
|Exposure:||Full sun in winter||Maintenance:||Low|
|Time to Maturity:||3 years||Attracts:||Birds, bees, butterflies|
|Spacing||1 plant per large branch||Order:||Santalales|
|Height:||Up to 2 feet||Family:||Santalaceae|
|Spread:||Up to 2 feet||Genus:||Phoradendron|
|Common Pests and Disease:||Typically localized to the host plant, varies depending on species||Species:||Californicum, juniperinum, leucarpum, macrophylla, pauciflorum, villosum|
Try Your Hand at Gardening in the Sky
I don’t know if you’ve priced a sprig of mistletoe lately, but it ain’t cheap. For a plant that is so easy to grow, it sure commands a high retail price.
Of course, saving a few bucks isn’t the only reason to grow your own. Your local wildlife will love you for it, and it’s a fascinating process.
To offer one final word of advice, try to limit yourself to one or two plants per tree.
You really don’t want to sacrifice your tree’s health, and just a few plants won’t cause any real harm if your tree is healthy otherwise.
I can’t wait to hear how it all goes! What region are you growing in, and what do you plan to do with your new plants? Share the details of your journey in the comments section below.
To nurture the hardwood trees that you can use as hosts for these plants, including fruits, nuts, and ornamental landscape trees, you might want to brush up on their needs. Here are a few guides that may come in handy: