Friday, May 16, 2014

Survival Plant Profile: Mulberries

I remember the first time I saw a mulberry tree. Growing up in South Florida, we were used to oranges, grapefruit, mangos and avocadoes. But… a blackberry that grew on a tree? Wild!

I was 10 years old. My little brother Brian and I were visiting our friends Rachel and Miles, who were eight and seven. Rachel took us down a little alley behind her house to show us the tree. We picked fruit and purpled our fingers and lips… totally amazed by the delicious abundance.

Rachel is now my wife; and though we no longer live in South Florida, we did take a trip back a few years ago and asked Rachel’s mom if the tree was still at the end of the alley. Sadly, it had been removed – but a far-sighted neighbor had taken cuttings before its demise and planted them across the street in an empty lot. We took our children for a walk and found the trees in full fruit. All of us came home purple and happy, our baskets loaded with berries.

In my yard in North Central Florida, I’ve planted a half-dozen mulberry trees and will soon plant more.

The mulberry tree has been praised and demonized… overlooked… fed to silk worms… discovered by hungry travelers… and planted by the Founding Fathers. It grows across most of the United States and is a consistent producer of delicious berries. The range is actually astounding, when you consider that mulberries live and fruit in states with blizzards and ice… and in Miami… where people suntan in February.

I’m always amazed when people pick on mulberries as “messy.” That’s like saying “you know, the Mississippi is a great river… what a shame it’s so damp!”

As I say regularly… that’s not mess! THAT’S FOOD!

Sure, songbirds sometimes eat the berries and then re-create Pollack masterpieces across the hood of your Honda… but that’s a small price to pay for mulberry pie… dried mulberries… mulberry brandy… mulberry cobbler… and smiling children with purple fingers.

This "Illinois Everbearing" mulberry is two years old and already bears gallons of berries.
I read – with horror – that some landscape-minded plant breeders have bred fruitless varieties. FRUITLESS! If I were them, I would watch the sky for lightning bolts. God makes one of the most productive and delicious fruits known to man… and you breed the fruit off it?

Okay – I’m done ranting. Let’s talk about growing these things.

Mulberries will grow in half-shade but prefer full sun. After the first year, they need basically no watering or care to survive. My kind of tree.

Something that’s really encouraging about the mulberry is that it has a juvenile period of almost zero, provided you grow it from cuttings or grafted trees. If you grow them from seed, it can take a decade to get fruit.

I’ve had tiny trees (not from seed) produce fruits. And when mulberries are young, they grow like weeds. They also respond very well to pruning. I’m trying different methods of tree shaping to keep the berries within reach for ease of picking. Untended mulberry trees can get tall quickly.

Not only are mulberries productive, they're also a beautiful shade tree.
As for varieties, that’s where things get complicated. Morus albaMorus rubra and Morus nigra all look quite similar and hybridize readily, producing fertile offspring. In fact, Morus alba, the “white mulberry,” has been classified as invasive in some states due to its ability to hybridize with the native red mulberry (Morus rubra), threatening the species. 

The white mulberry is the famous mulberry of the Oriental silk industry. Though it’s called “white,” it has fruit that range in color from purple to pink to white. Their flavor is said to be less delicious than the “red” or “black” mulberry species, though the fully white mulberries have a nice honey flavor.

There are varieties of mulberries known as “ever-bearing,” since they bear sporadic crops throughout the warmer months, rather than having one gigantic crop all at once in the spring. I own one and it's wonderfully prolific over a long season.

One of my favorite varieties – for purely aesthetic reasons – is the Pakistan “long mulberry,” a tree that bears graceful 2-3” long fruit. Though my long mulberry is only 3’ high, it’s already bearing a few fruit.

Another use for mulberries that is now being rediscovered is its excellence as animal feed. Chickens and pigs will live happily on the abundant dropped fruit – and goats are inordinately fond of the tree’s leaves. 

If you have space… and you’d like fruit within a year… and you want happy children… grow a mulberry. Right now. Go get one – you’ll love it.

(NOTE: I stock multiple varieties for sale in my nursery - drop me an e-mail if you'd like to purchase your very own mulberry tree.)


4.5 Spuds!

Name: Mulberry
Latin Name: Morus alba, Morus nigra, Morus rubra
Type: Tree
Nitrogen Fixer: No
Medicinal: No
Cold-hardy: Yes
Exposure: Full sun to part shade
Part Used: Fruit, sometimes leaves
Propagation: Grafting, cuttings, seed
Taste: Very good
Method of preparation: Fresh, dried, jams, jellies, and in awesome cobbler (thanks, Rach!)
Storability: Poor
Ease of growing: Easy
Nutrition: Good
Recognizability: Low
Availability: Low

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At May 17, 2014 at 4:49 AM , Anonymous Patti said...

my best friend Laura and I picked her neighbors tree clean when we were kids. the tree is still there, but I don't know the owners. It was pruned back to nothing one year and it took awhile to recover. Such good fun!

At May 17, 2014 at 2:03 PM , Blogger David The Good said...

Great memory. :)


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