Common Name: Mulberry (Black, Red, and White)
Scientific Name: Morus species
- White Mulberry (Morus alba)
- Chinese or Korean Mulberry (Morus australis)
- African Mulberry (Morus mesozygia)
- Texas Mulberry (Morus microphylla)
- Black Mulberry (Morus nigra)
- Red or American Mulberry (Morus rubra)
I was not a fan of the White Mulberry fruit that grew in my backyard when I lived in Kentucky. It was quite bland, and that is the reputation that Mulberries hold by most eaters. Unfortunately, this is because most people in the U.S. eat unimproved varieties that have grown wild. It wasn’t until I lived in Turkey that I really rediscovered the Mulberry. They were everywhere. Dried. Fresh. Used in baked goods. Used in ice cream! There were a number of Mulberry trees that grew along the road near my house, and these fruits were delicious! I was able to visit carpet makers who where creating amazing works of art with the silk created from caterpillar who dined on the Mulberry leaves. Then I learned about using the fruit and leaves to feed livestock, and that the cooked leaves and stems can be eaten by humans as well. I think it is about time for Americans to rediscover this amazing tree!
I am thrilled to have found numerous wild Mulberry trees on our new farm. I can’t vouch for their taste yet, but even if they don’t taste very good, that’s okay. I now know for sure that Mulberries will grow on my land.
Mulberry Trees are large trees that produce fruit that resemble a blackberry, but the fruit doesn’t taste much like a blackberry. There are about 15 Morus species and many more hybrids, but the three most common species (the Black, Red, and White) have ripe fruits that typically develop the color of their name… the Black Mulberry has dark purple, almost back fruit; the Red Mulberry has reddish fruit that will ripen to deep purple; the White Mulberry has green, unripe fruit that will turn white when ripe. However, there are varieties of all these trees that have a range of fruit colors. It is said that the Black Mulberry has the best flavor, and the White has the worst (or least best) flavor. I would have to agree in part, although the White Mulberry makes the best dried fruit. I think it resembles a fruity raisin with a bit of a crunch. Fresh Black Mulberry fruit is delicious, especially the improved cultivars. They are sweet and slightly tart and taste like… well, mulberries.
- Black Mulberry Trees (M. Nigra) are native to southwest Asia. It has been cultivated for thousands of years in that area, and was brought to Europe before the Roman Empire where it has continued to be grown for its fruits.
- White Mulberry Trees (M. alba) are native to northern, eastern, and central China and has been cultivated for thousands of years for fruit and to feed silkworms. It was introduced to North America during colonial times as part of an attempt to create a silk culture, and multiple sericulture (silk farming) endeavors were made over the next 300 years. Ultimately, these all failed due in part to a blight in the mid 1800’s, but mainly due to the fact that silk required intense labor to produce. Farmers would rather raise less labor-intensive crops like tobacco and cotton!
- Red Mulberry Trees (M. rubra) are native to eastern North America and was used quite a bit by the native population. The fruit from unimproved Red Mulberries are often bland (but not always!)
- The Mulberries hybridize easily, and many of the hybrids are fertile. This has led to confusion in taxonomy, and there are dozens of “species” and “subspecies” on which botanical authorities still do not agree. The good thing for the grower of Mulberries is that there are numerous varieties and hybrids that have been developed for improved flavor, increased production, and higher yields of fruit.
- Mulberry fruits, a.k.a. the “berry”, is not a true berry but a collective fruit.
- Murrey – a medieval term used to describe a fruit puree eaten as a pudding or cooked with meat. The term “murrey” was also used as an alternative word for “mulberry”. “Murrey” is also used to describe the mulberry color, somewhere between red and purple.
- How did the Mulberry get it’s Latin name, Morus? Let’s start with some mythology!
- The Tale of Pyramus and Thisbe (as told by wikipedia): In the Ovidian version, Pyramus and Thisbe is the story of two lovers in the city of Babylon who occupy connected houses/walls, forbidden by their parents to be wed, because of their parents’ rivalry. Through a crack in one of the walls, they whisper their love for each other. They arrange to meet near at Ninus’ tomb under a white mulberry tree and state their feelings for each other. Thisbe arrives first, but upon seeing a lioness with a mouth bloody from a recent kill, she flees, leaving behind her veil. The lioness drinks from a nearby fountain, then by chance mutilates the veil Thisbe had left behind. When Pyramus arrives, he is horrified at the sight of Thisbe’s veil, assuming that a fierce beast had killed her. Pyramus kills himself, falling on his sword in proper Roman fashion, and in turn splashing blood on the white mulberry leaves. Pyramus’ blood stains the white mulberry fruits, turning them dark. Thisbe returns, eager to tell Pyramus what had happened to her, but she finds Pyramus’ dead body under the shade of the mulberry tree. Thisbe, after a brief period of mourning, stabs herself with the same sword. In the end, the gods listen to Thisbe’s lament, and forever change the colour of the mulberry fruits into the stained colour to honour the forbidden love.
- The above story was the Roman version based on a similar Greek mythological story where Moros, the personification or spirit of impending doom, drives people to their fate (usually death).
- We get our modern word, morose (meaning sullen or gloomy), from the name of the same Greek spirit (Moros).
- The word for Mulberry in modern Greek is Mouro.
USING THIS PLANT
- Fresh eating – Fruit!
- Cooked – Preserves, jellies, jams, fruit leathers (may need to be mixed with more fibrous fruit juices/pulps), compotes, and desserts.
- Dried – kind of like crunchy raisins!
- Syrup – This is another use of mulberry juice and can be used in salad dressings, desserts, and drinks.
- Juice – This is a growing market as the juice is very high polyphenols and other antioxidants.
- Murrey – a fruit puree eaten as a pudding or cooked with meat.
- Primary or secondary/adjunct flavoring in wines, cordials, liqueur, and other alcoholic beverages, including beers.
- Edible Leaves and Young Stems – needs to be cooked. Used like grape leaves to wrap foods, can be used like cooked greens, just discard the water in which you cook the leaves.
- Sericulture (silk farming) – Mulberry trees and silkworms have a long history with humans!
- Tea Plant – Mulberry leaves have a long history of being used to make tea.
Making Mulberry Leaf Tea:
- Fresh Leaf Tea – Clean, whole, unblemished leaves are harvested and washed. They are cut or torn into strips roughly 0.5 inches or 1 cm in width. The torn leaves are dropped into boiling water. Leaves are boiled until the water turns light green. Leaves are filtered out.
- Dried Leaf Tea – Clean, whole, unblemished leaves are harvested and washed then allowed to dry in a single layer. Once dry enough to crumble, they are ready to be used to make tea. Use like black tea (from Camellia sinensis leaves) for an herbal, non-caffeinated drink.
- Food for wildlife, especially birds!
- Coppice or Pollard Tree – for fuel (wood), forage (leaves), or crafts (twigs); 1-4 year cycle is typical. The reliability of coppicing is varied depending on the source of information.
- Windbreak, typically only the “Russian Mulberry”, M. alba var tatarica is used.
- Traditional medicinal uses – it is reported that Mulberry root may help tapeworm. Overeating the fruit or eating the inner bark of the tree has been reportedly used to treat constipation (this information has not been verified). Tea made from Mulberry leaves has been reported to help with the common cold, diabetes and weight loss (by stabilizing blood sugars), and used as an antioxidant.
- Mulberry Fruit as a Forage Crop
- Mulberries (fruit) are choice food for poultry and pigs.
- Mulberries bear fruit crops with regularity. Many nut and fruit tree species have good years and bad years, but Mulberries are reliable.
- Mulberries have a long fruiting season. By planting early to late fruiting varieties/species, the fruiting season can be extended further.
- Mulberries can recover and still fruit if there is a late frost.
- Mulberry Leaves as a Forage Crop
- While historically used as a supplementary forage, recently there has been more focused research on using Mulberry leaves as a forage crops for livestock including monogastrics (pigs, rabbits, etc.), ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats, etc.), and poultry (chickens, ducks, etc.).
- The leaves contain between 18-25% protein (dry matter content) and have high digestibility (70-90%).
- Yields of leaves and stems used for forage, based on information gathered from around the world and compiled by FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), ranged from 3.2-21 tons/acre/year (8-52 tons/hectare/year) with most in the 8-12 tons/acre/year (20-30 tons/hectare/year).
- Compare this to alfalfa/lucerne (Medicago sativa), the “Queen of Hay Crops”, which yields 3-4 tons/acre/year (7.4-9.9 tons/hectare/year).
- There is good reason that J. Russell Smith included Mulberries in his revolutionary book, Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture. He called the Mulberry the “King (of Crops) Without a Throne”.
Yield: One source states 5-25 lbs per tree, and this may be true for young or small trees. Another source states 10 bushels (equivalent to 80 gallons), and I think this is more accurate for a large, mature tree’s yield.
Harvesting: Varies according to local climate. Fruit may ripen from late Spring to early Autumn. Pick as the fruits ripen – they will not all ripen at the same time. Sheets can be laid down and the tree given a good shake. The ripe fruits will drop easily. This is a very easy way (and my favorite way) to harvest Mulberries!
Storage: Fresh fruit only keeps for a few days, and are best kept unwashed (until you are about to eat them) in a cool environment; uncovered in a refrigerator is a good location. The fruits can be dried. The fruits also freeze well. It is best to freeze them individually first on a tray in a freezer before storing them together in a container or bag.
DESIGNING WITH THIS PLANT
AHS Heat Zone: 9-4
Chill Requirement: 300-500 hours/units depending on the species and variety.
Plant Type: Medium-Sized Trees
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Canopy Tree, Sub-Canopy Tree
Cultivars/Varieties: A few species and a many cultivars available
Pollination: Mulberry trees are either monoecious or dioecious. Monoecious Mulberries (trees having separate male and female flowers on the same plant) are typically self-pollinating/self-fertile. Dioecious Mulberries are trees having male (staminate) flowers and female (pistillate) flowers on separate trees… often called male or female trees. Some dioecious Mulberry trees have been known to change from one sex to another. Some cultivars will produce greater yields if allowed to cross-pollinate, although many cultivars (monoecious types) do not need cross-pollination at all. Some Mulberries can even produce fruit without any pollination. Pollination occurs by wind.
Flowering: Spring (typically not effected by frost).
- Years to Begin Fruiting: 5-15 years (can be as little as 2 years for some varieties, but will need a few more years to get to maximum production)
- Years to Maximum Fruiting: 1-3 years after fruiting begins
- Years of Useful Life: M. rubra (less than 75 years), M. alba (150 years), M. nigra (300+ years!)
PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THIS PLANT
Roots: taproot or heart-shaped root pattern (a number of main roots all spreading out and down)
Growth Rate: Fast
GROWING CONDITIONS FOR THIS PLANT
Shade: Tolerates light shade (about 25-50%)
Moisture: Medium, however some species/varieties can handle drier soils
pH: most species prefer fairly neutral soil (6.1 – 7.0); M. rubra can handle more alkaline soils (to 8.5)
Special Considerations for Growing:
Branches can be brittle, so some protection may be needed from the wind. M. alba tolerates juglone (natural growth inhibitor produced by Black Walnut and its relatives). Consider using this tree as a buffer between your walnuts and other plantings.
Mulberries can grow from seed and can be sown immediately after fruiting. Seeds germinate better with some cold stratification. Seeds can be stratified from 4-16 weeks. Trees planted from seed take the longest to begin bearing fruit. Cuttings from hardwood, softwood, and even the roots have all been reported to work well, but depending on who you talk to about it, this is really easy or really difficult.
- Seedlings are susceptible to slugs and snails.
- Once established, very little maintenance is needed.
- If pruning, do so in early summer.
- Trim away dead branches for aesthetic reasons or prune branches to minimize branch overcrowding.
- Few pests.
- Fruits can be messy – avoid planting trees near driveways and sidewalks/walkways
- Can spread easily by seed – usually by birds
- Some people are allergic to the pollen – seasonal allergies
- Some people are sensitive to the milky sap – contact dermatitis
- Poisonous – In some species, the unripe fruit and leaves (mainly the white sap within the unripe berries and in the leaves) can cause stomach upset at best and hallucinations at worst.
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