Now that the host's leaves have fallen many clumps of Mistletoe are evident on several of the apple trees in the orchard. Between the bright green leaves is an abundance of waxy white fat berries which have developed and ripened from insignificant flowers which were borne earlier in the year. The plants attach to and penetrate the branches of the apple trees by a structure called the haustorium, through which they absorb water and nutrients from the host plant. Although it is parasitic, it will not kill the host tree but can weaken it.
The name Mistletoe originally referred to the species Viscum album (European mistletoe, of the family Santalaceae in the order Santalales); it was the only species native to Great Britain and much of Europe. Over the centuries, the term has been broadened to include many other species of parasitic plants with similar habits, found in other parts of the world.
The berries, which are poisonous, are often spread by birds from one tree to another, and this is how the large rounded clumps of mistletoe form in tree branches. The most common host tree in the UK is apple, but poplar and lime are also frequent hosts. The Mistletoe in the Physic Garden was 'sown' artificially and has taken several years to become established. Hints on how to grow the plant appear on the RHS website.
Mistletoe is a popular Christmas plant and decoration. There are lots of legends and traditions surrounding Mistletoe, the most well known and popular being the kissing one. It was believed that kissing under the mistletoe would lead to marriage. In ancient times the Druids believed that Mistletoe would bring good luck and health. Because of its high toxicity it has little use in medicine.
Most Mistletoe on sale comes either from the UK or elsewhere in Europe. It will keep for two to three weeks after gathering if it is kept in a cool place such as a shed or garage.
Mistletoe will be on sale in the Physic Garden next week.