Foraged

How to find mistletoe (with video!)

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Trying to figure out how to find mistletoe to add some holiday cheer to your home? We’ll help you find mistletoe, but earning a kiss for your efforts is up to you… 


While we usually write about foraging edible plants, not everything we forage is for the kitchen table. Case in point: mistletoe, which you definitely do NOT want to eat for reasons we’ll explain below.

Various species of this odd plant are quite common throughout the world. So chances are if there are trees where you live, there’s also mistletoe to be found. 

How to find mistletoe: four tips

Here are four things you should know to find mistletoe where you live: 

1. Mistletoe doesn’t grow by itself. 

Mistletoe doesn’t survive or grow on its own. 

Instead, mistletoe is hemiparasitic. During the first year of its life, it can photosynthesize and make its own energy until its root-like haustorium dig into its host plant and begin stealing nutrients and water. After that point, it’s fully parasitic. 

This means to find a mistletoe plant, you’ll need to find it growing on another plant, typically a tree (but sometimes smaller shrubs. 

2. Try to find out what your local mistletoe species is (or are).  

The host trees for mistletoe vary by mistletoe species and location. However, there is a mistletoe species that will attach to pretty much any tree species out there, so find out a little more about what species of mistletoe is most common where you live. (There are over 30 species native to North America.)  

Eastern mistletoe with white berries growing in a Bradford pear tree.

Eastern mistletoe with white berries growing in a Bradford pear tree.

For example, in the southeastern United States where we live, the dominant species is the aptly named eastern mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum, Viscaceae). A survey done in a town in Kentucky found the following:

“Phoradendron leucarpum was found in 2320 host plants among 21 trees species (two introduced exotics, one hybrid, 18 native) and one naturalized shrub.”  

That’s a pretty wide menu of trees for mistletoe to dine on. The same survey found that the most common tree that eastern mistletoe grew on was wild black cherry (Prunus serotina), with second place going to black walnut. 

In our town (Greenville, SC), if we had to guess, we’d say we mostly typically see eastern mistletoe growing on oaks, maples, and Bradford pears.  

3. Mistletoe is easiest to find at certain times of year. 

Mistletoe is present and visible on its host trees year round, however it’s most easy to spot during the cold months after trees have dropped their leaves. 

Then you can easily see round mounds of mistletoe (which doesn’t drop its leaves) standing out against the otherwise bare tree. These round-shaped clusters of mistletoe have the folklore-rich name of “witches’ brooms.” Often there are multiple patches of mistletoe in the same tree since birds, squirrels, and other animals readily forage the berries and spread the seeds to other branches in the process. 

Can you spot the mistletoe witches brooms in this giant dormant maple tree?

Can you spot the mistletoe witches’ brooms growing in this large dormant maple tree?

So good news: the time of year when you most likely want to find mistletoe — December — is the time of year when it’s most easy to find it! 

4. Urban areas are full of mistletoe — no need to go to the country.  

We’d love to encourage you to take a long walk in the woods. You’ll feel better and burn off some of those holiday calories. However, that’s not the easiest way to find mistletoe…

Frankly, we seldom see mistletoe on hikes through healthy, established forests. We see it most abundantly in urban areas where ecological disruption causes trees to be less healthy. Or perhaps it’s because squirrels are more abundant in urban areas and spread the seeds more readily. Or both. Who knows.    

Regardless, the easiest way to find mistletoe is to hop in your car and drive through older, established neighborhoods with lots of old trees. (Or walk!) Make it a family affair.

You’ll likely spot plenty of mistletoe witches’ brooms on leafless tree branches. The hardest part is finding them growing low enough to the ground to easily nab! 

Put on a Santa hat and it will make your plant heist that much easier to explain to any curious onlookers/homeowners. Speaking of Santa, you could also tell any inquiring minds that mistletoe is in the plant family Santalaceae in the order Santalales. Perhaps that’s where Santa’s parents got the inspiration for his name?

A beautiful cluster of Eastern mistletoe ready to hang and be kissed under.

A beautiful cluster of Eastern mistletoe ready to be hung and kissed under.

Video: How to find mistletoe 

To show you how easy it is to spot mistletoe, I walked a few miles around a neighborhood adjacent to a doctor’s office where Susan had an appointment. Off Baby Sebastian and I went in search of mistletoe while Susan visited the doctor.

Within a three mile walk, we spotted countless trees with mistletoe and two trees with large bunches close to the ground and easy to grab. Have a look!   

 

*Note: If the video doesn’t play for you, it’s likely because you’re running ad blocking software. Please temporarily disable and try again if you’d like to watch. Ads help us keep the lights on, so thanks for your support! 


Other interesting mistletoe FAQs

Some other commonly asked questions about mistletoe:

Is mistletoe edible?

No, mistletoe is not edible. There are compounds in mistletoe being studied and used for their medicinal benefits, but no part of the plant is edible. 

Is mistletoe poisonous and/or deadly to humans?

Mistletoe contains chemical compounds that are poisonous to humans. The highest risk is to babies and children since: 1) they’re smaller, and 2) they don’t know not to eat it. 

The small jewel-like berries of mistletoe (which can be red, white, or pink) can be very attractive to babies and young children, so be careful!

The small jewel-like berries of mistletoe (which can be red, white, or pink) can be very attractive to babies and young children, so be careful!

If your child consumed mistletoe, stop reading this article and contact a medical professional immediately. Don’t panic, if someone ate mistletoe they’re not likely to die, but they could get very sick depending on the quantity eaten and their age.  

Is mistletoe poisonous and/or deadly to dogs and cats?

Mistletoe is also poisonous to cats and dogs, but probably not fatal unless they eat a large amount. Call your vet if your cat or dog ate mistletoe. 

If you happen to have a pet squirrel who eats mistletoe berries, no worries. 

How do you keep mistletoe fresh?

Once you remove mistletoe sprigs from its host tree, it can no longer uptake water and nutrients. That means it will start to slowly wilt/desiccate. Cut mistletoe will stay in pretty good shape for about 10 days, so plan accordingly. 

Putting mistletoe in the fridge won’t help and spritzing it with water likely won’t either. You’re better off collecting more mistletoe if you’re no longer able to convince your special someone to kiss you under the limp, browning twig that once your glorious mistletoe cutting. 

Is mistletoe red or white?

Mistletoe leaves are usually green but some species are yellowish in color. Mistletoe berries can range in color from white to pink to red, depending on the species.

Many people confuse holly (also used for holiday decorations) with mistletoe, but they’re totally different species.  

Can you grow mistletoe?

Yes, you can grow mistletoe but that’s probably not a great idea since it will eventually kill or sicken the tree you grow it on. To grow mistletoe, take a ripe mistletoe berry and plunk it into a crevice on a tree. 

A year after it sprouts, the young mistletoe plant will start to take nutrition from the tree. 

What are the origins of the word mistletoe? What does it mean? 

“Honey, would you like to kiss me under the ‘dung on a twig’?” Probably not. 

The word mistletoe is of Anglo-Saxon origin and has to do with people noticing that mistletoe often sprouted from spots on trees where birds pooped. “Mistel” = animal poop and the word “tan” = twig. Misteltang eventually morphed to became mistletoe.  

When and where did the mistletoe tradition start? 

Like a lot of our modern Christmas traditions, the use of mistletoe is borrowed and transmogrified from previous traditions that were themselves borrowed and transmogrified from previous traditions.

Hanging mistletoe over your door dates back to (at least) the Roman winter solstice festival of Saturnalia, where it was believed to confer peace and love. (Tell that to the plant it parasitized!) In the 1700s the tradition of kissing under mistletoe was born.   

Can you kill mistletoe? 

If you have a tree in your yard with unwanted mistletoe growing on it, you can kill it. Cut it off where it attaches to the tree, and cut off any new mistletoe growth that emerges.

Dispose of (or compost) any berries you remove to prevent birds or squirrels from eating and spreading it.   

Is mistletoe “good” or “bad” for ecosystems? 

While mistletoe is a parasite, it actually serves beneficial roles in ecosystems. First, its flowers are important for certain species of pollinators, both as a source of nectar/pollen for adults and as a host plant for their larvae. Likewise, the berries are an important food source for squirrels and certain bird species. 

Additionally, you might notice that those large “witches brooms'” of mistletoe serve another function: nesting habitat for squirrels and various bird species such as spotted owls. Since infected host tree limbs and whole trees die prematurely, that dead wood also becomes nests for cavity-nesting birds (certain species of woodpeckers, owls, nuthatches, etc.). More mistletoe, more birds.   

We hope you enjoyed this article and are better able to find mistletoe, misteltang, or “poop on a twig” in time for a holiday smooch! 

KIGI,

Tyrantfarms

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