Mistletoe (Viscum album)

Mistletoe's leathery green leaves offer welcome colour among bare winter branches when much else is dormant.

Common name(s): mistletoe, also known as European mistletoe, European white-berry mistletoe, common mistletoe

Scientific name: Viscum album
Family: 
Santalaceae

Interesting fact: its botanical name aptly reflects its sticky nature - viscum comes from the latin 'visco' meaning sticky.

What does mistletoe look like?

Mistletoe is a small semi-parasitic evergreen shrub which forms large spherical balls in the tops of trees. Balls of mistletoe can be up to 1m wide. Mistletoe leaves, stems and berries are all poisonous.

Habit: this semi-parasitic shrub can produce some of its own food via photosynthesis but takes minerals and water from a host tree. Mistletoe grows high in the canopy of a host broadleaf tree. Several different species can act as hosts. In the UK it is commonly found in apple, lime and poplar but it has also been recorded on blackthorn, hawthorn, rowan and willow. Mistletoe on oaks is rare.

Leaves: pairs of oval green leaves.

Flowers: mistletoe is dioecious meaning male and female flowers are produced on separate plants. The small flowers have four tiny petals and form in clusters of three to five.

Fruits: Waxy white berries in clusters of two to six. The seeds inside are coated in a sticky substance and are dispersed by birds.

Seeds may stick to the beaks of birds feeding on the fruit, which they smear off on a branch, or can be eaten and excreted on trees in their droppings. The gluey pulp around the seed hardens and fastens it in place. As the new mistletoe plant grows, the roots penetrate the bark taking water and nutrients from the tree.

Where and when to find mistletoe?

Mistletoe is found in the south and west midlands in the UK. Common hosts include hawthorn, blackthorn and rowan, and most commonly apple. Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire are traditionally associated with mistletoe.

Its leaves are green all year round but are more visible in the winter once the other trees have lost their leaves. The white berries appear from about October until May.

Value to wildlife

White berries are not usually sought out by birds as they instead often prefer those that are red, orange or purple. However some will eat white berries and it is an important winter food source for birds such as the mistle thrush. For winter visitors like redwings and fieldfares it is a welcome resource.

Mistletoe Leaves Fran Hitchison WTML SmallThe evergreen leaves grow in
pairs. (Photo: F Hitchison/
WTML)

Mistletoe depends on birds to disperse its seeds. Within the small waxy berries the seeds are coated in a sticky substance called viscin. Some of this remains on the seeds after the berries have passed through the birds digestive system helping the seeds stick to a branch of a tree where they germinate. As the new mistletoe plant grows, the roots penetrate the bark of the tree via specially adapted 'root' called a haustorium thereby connecting host and parasite. 

Key value: six species of insect are specialist mistletoe feeders including the rare mistletoe marble moth Celypha woodiana and mistletoe weevil Ixapion variegatum.

Mythology and symbolism

It was first described in the third century BC by Theophrastus, a Greek naturalist, and entwined into Greek mythology. Pagan societies thought it represented the divine male essence.

Find out more about mistletoe mythology and folklore.

How we use mistletoe

The tradition of kissing beneath the mistletoe represents the very spirit of contemporary Christmas, despite the Druidic origins of the custom. The greenery of mistletoe's leaves, and the abundance of its berries in the depths of winter, are obvious signs of vitality at a time when much else is dormant. It's been used to decorate the home since at leats the 16th century.

The commercial centre for mistletoe trade in the UK is Tenbury Wells, Worcestershire, where there is an abundance of apple orchards (one of its favoured host plants). Mistletoe is also imported into the UK from northern France. Again, where there is an abundance of fruit trees.

Threats

Mistletoe is not under threat but the loss, or grubbing up, of traditional orchards, once a place where it thrived, is a concern. Trees with large infestations of mistletoe can be negatively affected. 

Although mistletoe may be nice as a Christmas decoration, it also offers excellent food and habitat for many creatures and has been declining across the UK. It’s best to just enjoy it in nature where it lives.

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