Among all the alternative business ideas I've seen in MOTHER EARTH NEWS, no one has mentioned selling mistletoe crafts. Perhaps that's because the plant—a traditional holiday decoration—is plentiful only in a limited region. ("New Jersey, e. Pennsylvania, W. Virginia, s. Ohio, s. Illinois, and s.e. Kansas to Florida and e. Texas," according to A Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs by George A. Petrides.—MOTHER EARTH NEWS.) Here in Kentucky, though, the trees are full of it and the white-berried sprigs sell like mad during a brief season (the day after Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve). I've made as much as $50.00 just from one afternoon's picking at the rate of 25¢ for a large spray, but to really bring in money, you'd operate in the following fashion:
First find a source of mistletoe by driving around in the country until you spot an area where the parasitic plant is dense. Mistletoe seems to prefer old oaks, but is also found on black walnut and other trees. Its clusters of thick yellow-green leaves stand out clearly among the host's bare branches.
If you find mistletoe-bearing trees that overlook a public road, well and good. If they're in someone's pasture, it's best to ask permission before you gather (few will refuse) and then to drop off a nice bunch as a "thank you" to the owner. Since mistletoe is a parasite that slowly kills its hosts, you're doing the trees a favor by removing the infestation. On the other hand, it's practically impossible to get rid of for good—it grows back and is thought to be transmitted by birds—so you won't be upsetting any natural balance.
Here in the South, the traditional method of harvesting mistletoe out of high branches is to blast it down with a shotgun. I don't recommend that, however, since you want nice large sprigs with a lot of white berries. What you need is someone—perhaps a teenaged son—who's good at climbing trees.
Right after Thanksgiving—preferably on a sunny, windless day—drive out to your mistletoe "patch" with a climber and possibly a ladder. You also might want to take along one of those long-handled tree trimmers, which isn't necessary but which will let you reach the most beautiful bunches that are always very high up or out on limbs too thin to take a person's weight.
Since the object is to break off as few berries as possible from the sprigs you collect, you might want some big shoulder-strap bags like those used in cotton picking. Climbing around in trees with a large sack is very clumsy, though, and you may prefer to bring an old sheet and drop the pieces into it. (Have two people hold the "net" clear of the ground, leaving a bit of slack.) In the latter case, you'll also need some boxes.
Don't spend more than two hours portal to portal on this expedition. A nice outing can turn into a cold, exhausting chore if you work too long. Anyhow, you don't want to pick more than a couple of big boxfuls at a time. (Mistletoe will hold up well if kept cool and damp. Sprinkle your collection with water and cover it with moist newspapers or rags, but don't let it get wet.)
Sort the day's take of mistletoe when you get home, to see what size sprigs you have. You may want to discard some, break up others into smaller sprays or even tie small bits together to distribute the berries among the leaves. I find that adding a decoration such as a red ribbon doesn't pay off: It takes a lot of time and work, the ribbon costs money, and people don't seem to buy more because of the effort.
Next, you need an outlet (which you should actually have lined up first of all) and your sales—of course—can be wholesale, retail, or both.
Wholesale markets include florists, craft shops, and boutiques (especially stores that are located near an interstate highway and rely on the tourist trade). You can also arrange to provide a large amount of mistletoe for the high school Christmas dance, the firemen's ball, or the Junior League and church parties. Check the newspaper for announcements of large gatherings and weddings during the Christmas season, and contact the people concerned about using a load of your wares as decorations.
Actually, the list of possible wholesale outlets is practically endless (it includes anyone who's doing large-scale Christmas decorations that don't have to take a beating over a long period of time). To capture this market, however, requires real salesmanship and hustling on your part, and the money to be made is only a fraction of what you can realize from retail sales.
If you do go the wholesale route, however, you'll want to know that I've charged $5.00 for a carton about like a beer case, and the same amount of mistletoe might sell for double that rate in the North. Remember that a shop which intends to resell needs to make a profit, but groups, schools and clubs that use the plant for decoration can pay a little more.
To retail mistletoe profitably, you need to take your harvest to a really large city. You must then decide whether to dodge cops or go legit. The latter approach requires a street vendor's license, which costs money and may not be granted at all in some places. You can find out at the city hall. With such a permit, you have one less worry and can devote all your thinking to sales.
If you prefer, you can just set up on the street, keep an eye out for the police, and move on at their appearance ... but you do risk a whopping fine or worse. Ever seen news photos of an English spasm band running down the street with tuba and bass drum, chased by an irate bobby? Or a Mexican mariachi group, bass and guitarone flying, with the policia in hot pursuit? It could happen to you.
Retailing—legal or illegal—can be done in two ways. You can pick a good corner in a busy downtown section or shopping center, rig yourself an eye-catching get-up, pin mistletoe all over your costume, put a sign on your back, around your head or on a pole, and let the customers come to you. Or you can dress very respectably, go to the wealthy and middle-class residential sections and ring doorbells. One other gimmick is to use younger children, say 8 to 11 years old, to do the selling. No cop is going to arrest a youngster that age, and people tend to buy from them more easily.
Retailing requires little salesmanship other than the nerve to approach people and ask them to buy your product. Physically, though, it's very hard work—cold and tough on the feet.
The retail price of mistletoe is an important consideration which varies according to region. In the North it would be possible to sell a bunch of two nice sprigs with berries for $1.00, and single sprays at 50¢ would go like wildfire. I'm sure one could make $100 a week in the Christmas season on a part-time basis, putting in no more than 20 hours of work altogether. An average church group or club that worked the retail and wholesale angles full time could clear $4,000 or $5,000 provided their supply of mistletoe held out.
Traditionally, mistletoe is a bringer of good fortune (hence the custom of greeting friends or stealing a kiss under its branches). Whatever the plant's powers, it can at least furnish you and your friends a little extra prosperity during the holiday season ... with no magic other than a bit of work.