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Can You Grow the Mistletoe?

Q: I want to grow mistletoe. My husband passed away in April. We ALWAYS had mistletoe during the holidays and always tried to get it fresh instead of plastic. He would have loved the idea of it growing in our yard. Internet research reveals that it's 'doable', but takes time and poses the risk of becoming invasive—and my landlord is not thrilled with the idea of my planting trees. Can you suggest a couple of trees that mistletoe likes that might do well in a pot?

    --- Randi in Piqua, Ohio

A. Well, I get to bail on Randi's specific question for several reasons. First, MapQuest shows that she's located too far North to be inside the growing range of this popular parasite. Theoretically, mistletoe can be found in Southern Ohio and Illinois, but it greatly prefers much warmer zones. And, as we repeatedly stress on the show, it is difficult-to-impossible to grow trees in pots in cold climes. And my research could not find anyone who was successfully growing mistletoe anywhere, although it is a popular cash crop harvested from the wild, mostly in Texas and Oklahoma.

In fact, some of you may have heard our recent Christmas show, where we included an interview I did years ago with an Oklahoma Extension agent who explained that people in his state usually "harvested mistletoe" from the wild with shotguns!

But as wonderful an image as that presents, I'm going to suggest that such people might like shooting things out of trees more than they like harvesting usable mistletoe; because 1) it's an extremely fragile plant; and 2) there is not a huge market for mistletoe with buckshot holes.

So, how is it properly harvested?

First you have to find some; which is relatively easy if it grows in your area, because it's an evergreen shrub that grows high up in deciduous trees, and you're looking for it after those trees have dropped their leaves. That makes winter the ideal time to locate your local mistletoe.

Then you have to find out who owns the land and get their permission to harvest some—which is generally easy to get, as there's a common impression that mistletoe weakens and eventually kills the trees it's inhabiting.

But it turns out that this is an area of great discussion and disagreement. Mistletoe is a true parasite; birds eat the famous berries—which are poisonous to us—poop the remains out onto a branch and then the roots of the baby plant burrow into that branch and take nutrients from the tree. BUT the growing mistletoe plant seems to have the ability to photosynthesize and provide some of its own nutrients; and many experts now feel that it doesn't harm healthy trees.

'Parasitic' is not a synonym for 'invasive', and the take on mistletoe has changed radically over the years. A great article on the Department of the Interior's US Geological Survey website reveals that American mistletoe is a native plant that's been co-existing with our trees for the last 20,000 years; and that stands of mistletoe have been found to dramatically increase the diversity of important wildlife in the areas in which they grow—especially desirable species of birds, butterflies and pollinators.

Yes, it can theoretically grow big enough to eventually shade the tree's true leaves—but it would take decades. Mistletoe grows VERY slowly. That's one of the reasons it's much smarter to find it in the wild than to try and farm it. It would take quite a few years to grow plants of any appreciable size.

Once you do find it and get permission, you generally need a ladder, a helper and a pole pruner. You use the ladder, steadied by the helper, to get up as high as you can and then you use the pole pruner to cut off pieces, which ideally you catch in a net or something so they don't hit the ground. Mistletoe bruises easily, and while you or the final buyer may choose to replace the poisonous berries with artificial, you don't want them to roll away on minute one.

Is this a big business?

There's certainly money to be made. I found a Bulletin on the West Virginia Extension website that talked about local harvesters gearing up to sell it at farmer's markets, roadside stands and a market in downtown Charleston. And they linked to a great article from a 1985 issue of Mother Earth News where a West Virginia woman talked in detail about harvesting mistletoe and selling it from a card table at a local mall during the Christmas holiday season. She reported making several hundred dollars—and having a lot of fun.

Now if you owned a woodlot in a prime growing area, you could certainly try to seed some of your trees—but it would be a slow process. I think it's much smarter to use the Internet—which did not exist when that Mother Earth News story was written—to connect with a harvester in a mistletoe-rich region who can ship it to you overnight.

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