Harvesting and Selling Mistletoe for Profit

article image
PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
Besides simply locating mistletoe, you'll need to consider its accessibility—the plant, you'll soon discover, has an annoying affinity for heights.

Cold cash really does grow on trees–but you have to be willing to go out on a limb for it by harvesting and selling mistletoe for profit.

Last December, I earned $525 in just 12 days selling
mistletoe here in Eugene, Oregon. And since this popular
holiday symbol grows wild in many parts of the country and
can usually be gathered for free, chances are you can do at
least as well marketing mistletoe in your own community when you are harvesting and selling mistletoe for profit.
Furthermore, now is the perfect time of year to lay the
groundwork for your holiday business.

Of course, first you’ll need to make sure there’s enough
mistletoe in your area. Drive around and look for the
distinctive ball-like clusters of green or yellow-green
foliage nestled among the bare branches of deciduous trees.
Mistletoe (genus Phoradendron) is a semiparasite that
prefers to freeload on oaks but also appears on such other
hardwoods as sycamores, black gums, maples, walnuts, and
elms. Botanists classify mistletoe as a semi-parasite
because, although it thrusts its roots into the host tree
for water, it manufactures and uses its own chlorophyll.

Besides simply locating mistletoe, you’ll need to consider
its accessibility-the plant, you’ll soon discover, has an
annoying affinity for heights. Although you may have the
extraordinary luck to find it growing in easy-to-climb scrub
oaks, the greater likelihood is that most clusters will be
perched amidst the topmost branches of tall trees. So make
a special note of any locations that offer particularly
easy picking. And, of course, be sure to get permission to
harvest any mistletoe that’s on private property. (This is
seldom a problem. In fact, because the parasite can, if
present in large quantities, actually kill the tree it
lives on, some landowners will pay to have the
stuff removed!)

HARVESTING MISTLETOE

Now comes the hard work. Wear appropriate clothes and shoes
for climbing trees, and bring along a few trash bags or
card board boxes for collecting your bounty.

The traditional southern method for harvesting mistletoe is
to blast it out of the tree with a shotgun. I don’t
recommend this approach; not only are shotgun shells
expensive, but the shot itself can damage both the tree and
the plant. Mistletoe is fragile, and you’ll sell more if
the boughs you gather are intact.

The best tool I’ve found for collecting mistletoe is a long
pole with a hook mounted on one end. Store-bought pruning
poles work nicely, but you can make your own: Get several
strips of 1 inch-wide lumber–wood that’s light enough to
handle, yet sturdy enough not to flop over when hoisted
high. Drill a hole an inch or two in from one end of each
of the strips, and then join the sections with 1/4 inch bolts
and nuts. Assembled, the pole should be about 12 to 20 feet
long-anything longer will be awkward to maneuver. You can
make the hook, which of course is used to dislodge the
mistletoe, by simply driving a long nail into one end of
the pole and then bending the spike over. (The curved blade
from a linoleum knife will work, too.) To transport the
pole, just loosen the nuts and fold it down, like a
carpenter’s ruler.

For really tall trees, you’ll need a long ladder. And if
you intend to do much harvesting, you may want to get
yourself a partner. One person can climb the tree and the
other can steady the ladder, hand the pole up, and catch
the clumps of mistletoe as they fall. (Again, remember that
the plants crush easily. Place them carefully in your bags
or boxes, and don’t stack the containers on top of one
another.)

As you work, try to be selective about the plants you
harvest. Mistletoe grows in both male and female
forms–the latter plants are the most desirable,
because they bear attractive, white-pink berries. (These
usually ripen sometime in December.) From the ground, it’s
often hard to tell the difference between male and female
plants, or even between leafy, attractive clumps and those
that are mostly stems. Leafy mistletoe with berries is
better, not only because it’s more appealing visually and
therefore easier to sell, but also because it will fill
more bags–netting more money for your efforts. If
your mistletoe comes up short of berries, you can mix male
and female plants together in one spray or package. Some
people actually prefer to buy unberried clusters, because
the tiny white fruit will eventually fall off and make a
mess, and because the fruit is, after all,
poisonous (something for parents and pet owners
especially to consider). Still, I’ve found that most people
want those berries, regardless of the drawbacks.

PACKAGING & PRICING MISTLETOE

Mistletoe, like any plant, will begin to dry once it’s
picked. Commercial dealers spray their wares with a
preservative to keep them fresh-looking, but I think a far
better way is to harvest only as much as you can sell
within a few days, and then gather more when you need it.
If you keep the foliage moist (but not wet) and package it
properly, it’ll retain its festive appearance nicely.

I’ve found that plastic sandwich bags-the kind with
built–in zippers–make effective packages for
mistletoe (people want to see what they’re buying!). Since
the containers create an airtight seal, though, it’s
important to punch air holes in them, or water vapor will
be trapped inside and the sprigs will become moldy. To
prepare many bags quickly, just drive a few nails into a
board and then impale the sacks on the spikes. Instant
ventilation!

As you package your product, keep your customers in
mind-try to make each parcel as attractive as possible.
Break the clumps you’ve gathered into small branches,
setting aside any particularly nice-looking sprays. Then
fill the bags, making sure to include one good spray and
several thinner sprigs in each one. Occasionally, I’m able
to buy colorful stick–on bows for just a few pennies
apiece–the decorations, either attached to the
outside of the bags or stuffed inside, really boost sales.
Don’t crowd the mistletoe, though–and don’t even
bother with such embellishments unless you can buy them at
a bargain rate that won’t cut into your profits.

Naturally, it’s hard to say how much mistletoe you should
package for your first day of selling, but I’d recommend at
least a couple of hundred bags. Your sales will depend
largely on your location and your price. Here in
economically depressed Eugene, I ask only 50 cents a bag,
and can easily move 100 bags on a good day. Yet the same
bag in New York City would probably move well at $2.00 or
more. If your sales are slow, cut your price.

Since mistletoe is an impulse item (people don’t think of
buying it until they see someone selling it), the best
locations are wherever there’s plenty of foot traffic. My
downtown mall “store” cost only $10 for a partial month’s
rent. The booth itself doesn’t have to be elaborate (I just
set up a card table and threw a tablecloth over it), but
you do need to make sure you and your product are visible.
My posterboard banners proclaim Mistletoe 50 cents . . .
Fresh, Organic, Oregon-Grown! . . . and Do Your Lips a
Favor! (Since the booth was outdoors, I bundled up in
appropriate cold–weather gear–and discovered
that looking somewhat chilled helped generate sales and
tips!)

THE SKY’S THE LIMIT!

Actually, there are any number of other ways to market
mistletoe. If there’s a college campus near you, try
peddling it door-to-door to fraternities and sororities. Or
if selling outdoors doesn’t appeal to you, take your
packaged mistletoe to retail stores and offer it to them on
consignment. Also, florists and grocers will sometimes buy
bulk mistletoe at wholesale–but I’ve found that the
profit’s better when I sell direct. (Besides, I get to meet
more people that way.)

Whichever methods you choose, and however big or small your
business may be, I think you’ll find–as I
have–that marketing mistletoe offers a multitude of
rewards. Not only do you make extra money for the holidays,
but you also get to make the season a bit merrier for other
folks. And you get to hang plenty of mistletoe around your
own house, so that you, too, can observe one of humankind’s
more enjoyable traditions!

EDITOR’S NOTE: For more tips on gathering and selling this
holiday plant, see “The Mistletoe Game” in MOTHER EARTH NEWS N0. 30.
You may also want to read about the fascinating legends and
lore associated with mistletoe, in MOTHER’s Herb Garden,
issue 66.