May 2017
The Magic of Gardening

Mulberry Picking Time

Sam Glover eating mulberries off the tree in his grandfather’s yard.

 

I bought a small, old home and surrounding property last year. I spent the year planting some trees and shrubs and trying to figure out what was already there that was worth saving. Directly in front of this old home is a large, very productive red mulberry tree. This is both good and bad.

Mulberries are sweet, slender, blackberry-like fruit that are good to eat and good bird food. Every fruit-eating bird species in the area will visit your yard if you have a red mulberry. Again, this is both good and bad because they are quite messy, but it is nice to see the birds that visit.

On the plus side my grandson Sam enjoyed his first taste of them to the full. He was cramming them into his mouth as fast as he could to the point I was worried he would have a bellyache. So I stopped his consumption before he was ready to stop. That did not win me any brownie points with him.

Although there are invasive species of mulberries, the red mulberry is a native species called Moras rubra. This species has been used in many ways by Native Americans for centuries. De Soto observed Muskogee Indians eating the dried fruit during his expeditions. The Cherokees made sweet dumplings by mixing cornbread and sugar with mulberries.

The white mulberry, Moras alba, was brought from China a couple of hundred years ago as a host plant for silkworms. The silkworm venture was not successful, but the white mulberry did exceedingly well and is now considered an invasive pest. The fruit from white mulberry can be pink, black, purple or white, but the flower buds are white which gives them their name. Their taste is bland and not nearly as desirable as the red mulberry.

 

If you enjoy watching birds or other wildlife, you may want to plant some mulberry trees in your landscape. They fruit very young, and birds and other small wildlife love the fruit.

Mulberries are often, but not always, dioecious (male and female trees separate). If you have a male-only, the flowering tree will not produce any fruit. If you have a female-only or a monecious (both male and female blooms on the same tree) tree, you may get fruit without a male tree being nearby. But the fruit coming from a female tree will not produce viable seed.

If you want to plant a mulberry, I would plant the native red mulberry or the black mulberry, Moras nigra. Although the latter species is not native, it produces a desirable fruit on a much smaller tree and it is not considered invasive. It may be hard to find trees, but they are easy to grow from seed or cuttings. Plants produced from cuttings will produce fruit much quicker than those produced from seed. Visit www.aces.edu/go/672 for some tips on rooting a mulberry plant.

However, before you go wild planting an orchard, be forewarned of the negative attributes of this large fruit tree. I have mentioned the messy characteristics, but I should also mention they are wind pollinated, generally meaning they can be an allergen and some folks may have allergic reactions during their bloom time. They are, therefore, best suited for farmsteads with plenty of room to locate them away from the home and downwind from the prevailing spring winds.

Even with all the negatives, you may still have just the right spot for a tree or two. If you enjoy watching birds or other wildlife, you may want some trees just for this purposes. They fruit very young and grow very fast; birds and small wildlife love the fruit; and the birds will also benefit from the many insects that feed on the foliage. You will need to protect the tree from deer until it is several feet tall because they love the leaves. On the plus side, they will eat up any seedlings that sprout where you don’t want them to grow. Mulberries are one of the first things to provide fruit to wildlife in the spring; often fruiting by mid to late April, possibly before turkey season is over (hint hint).

Mulberries are fairly adaptable to all soil types and are drought tolerant once established.

So whether you decide to plant several trees for wildlife or just one or two trees out behind the house, you will enjoy the fruits of your labor very quickly and for a long time.

 

Tony A. Glover is a County Extension Coordinator in Cullman County.