With the widespread disappearance of orchards in the UK it has been commonly accepted that the mistletoe was in decline However recent research has shown that this is only partially true. While populations of mistletoe have been decreasing in the West Midlands and central England, there are now more specimens growing in the south of England. We are also seeing it growing on a broader range of host plants such as poplars, false acacia, and hawthorn etc. It is also increasingly found clinging onto lime trees and sometimes even rose bushes.

Mistletoe is in fact a parasite, unable to grow without feeding from a host plant. It manages this by producing a specialised root system that searches for and then taps into the host plants own vascular system. This enables the mistletoe to draw water and nutrients directly from the host, although it is able to create some of its own sugars using limited photosynthesis. The mistletoe also releases growth regulation hormones into the host causing localised swelling and helping to increase the yield of nutrient and water.

More than just a Christmas favourite, the English mistletoe is also believed to have important medicinal properties. Currently undergoing research, there are already compounds identified and isolated which are helping scientists with their search for a cure for cancer.

In its own environment mistletoe reproduces naturally with the assistance of birds such as the mistle thrush or the blackcap. This works in two ways.

1. They eat the berries, but are unable to digest the seed. This seed is then excreted from the bird within its droppings and with a bit of luck, these seeds will land on a suitable host tree’s bark where they will germinate.

2. When they are eating the berries, some of the seeds often become ‘glued’ to the bird's beak by the sticky, viscous flesh - known as viscin - which surrounds them. The bird then tries to wipe off the seeds by rubbing its beak against the bark of a neighbouring tree. This seed then sticks to the bark instead triggering the embryonic plant to start growing.

Although difficult to germinate, - fact only about 10% of seed grows on to become a viable plant - it is possible to give nature a hand. Click onto the link below to learn how to propagate and grow mistletoe.
Main image credit - Elie plus CC BY-SA 3.0

For related article click onto the following links:
How to Propagate and Grow Mistletoe
RHS Mistletoe

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