Mulberries – Don’t Believe the Haters
Humans have a love/hate relationship with the mulberry tree. This is evidenced by municipal bylaws that outlaw them for things like excessive pollen and berries that stain sidewalks and cars.
My feeling is that the tree is simply misunderstood, and if everyone knew what I, and other mulberry enthusiasts, know, it would be a 100% love-fest.
So what is there to love about a mulberry tree?
You can’t beat a mulberry (Morus) when it comes to bang for your buck. Mulberries grow quickly and are super prolific in their fruit yields. They’ll start producing in mid-June and then won’t stop until the latter half of August.
A mature tree will yield 15-25 lbs of fruit. For comparison, an elderberry tree will yield between 12-15 lbs of berries, and you’ll get 1.5 lbs from a blackberry plant. That means it’s not a big deal to share a few of your tastiest mulberries with the birds. In fact, the mulberry makes an excellent diversion tree if you’ve got other fruits you want to keep safe from voracious blue jays.
It’s important to pick the right placement for your mulberry tree because they can get pretty big—the roots can spread over 100 feet and they can be 80 feet tall. So it’s best to keep them away from your septic, foundation, AND driveway (remember there is a reason they are banned in car-centric cities). We’ve got ours growing at the edge of the forest, a short walk from the cabin, where they get plenty of sun.
In Canada we have one native mulberry variety, Morus rubra or red mulberry, which is sadly endangered. Mulberries hybridize readily, and the red mulberry is getting pushed out genetically by the white mulberry. It’s hard to tell the difference between the two, because they actually both have berries that ripen to a dark purple. The easiest way to tell them apart is in the leaf texture. The red mulberry has a rough surface and a hairy underside, whereas the white mulberry leaf is smooth.
Mulberries may be more international than any other fruit tree. They’re found in North America, South America, Africa, Asia, and Europe.
Perhaps the only region that one might expect to find mulberries that doesn’t have them is Australia and New Zealand. There is a plant commonly called the “Australian mulberry,” but it’s not actually a mulberry, rather it’s part of the totally unrelated Monimiaceae family that typically resides in the Southern Hemisphere and bears a fruit that kind of looks like a mulberry.
Many different cultures include mulberries in their folklore and mythology. Ovid writes about Pyramus and Thisbe, doomed lovers that both die under a mulberry tree thereby turning the berries from white to red with their blood.
In ancient Chinese literature the sun birds that were responsible for carrying the sun across the sky every day lived in a mulberry tree.
In India, the mulberry is considered a “kalpavriksha” or divine tree in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist traditions. Not all trees of a given variety are sacred, rather individual specimens attain the honour. There is a huge mulberry tree in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand believed to be over 2400 years old, which grants wishes according to lore. It’s also got a circumference of 70 feet!
The oldest mulberry tree in England was planted in 1548 by a botanist, Dr. William Turner in West London. It was valued for its medicinal qualities, including (in the words of Dr. Turner), its ability to “looseth the belly.” Also, the juice of the leaves could be taken as a remedy against the bite of a field spider. Oh, and a concoction made from the bark could “driveth broad worms from the belly.” A medical marvel!
Mulberry harvesting is one of the best things about summer. Here’s how it goes down: I’m out soaking up the glorious summer garden vibes and I notice that more than half the berries are ripe on our mulberry trees. It’s time!
Phone calls go out to assemble a rag tag group of harvesters aka available friends, neighbours, and family members. We meet on the agreed upon day and roles are assigned. The coveted role of “shaker” is the last to be appointed.
Once everyone has had a chance to socialize a little, we get down to business. The tarp bearers lay the tarps under the trees. The shakers get into position in the tree limbs, and start shaking the branches. Pretty soon ripe berries are falling onto the tarps like manna from heaven. The gatherers pick up the fallen berries fighting back flying squirrels and birds swooping in for the steal. The booty is collected in buckets and we’re ready to process.
The whole day is a celebration of nature, being together, and the satisfaction of working towards a common goal. And mulberries!
The berries we harvest have so many different uses. They can be dried, baked into pies, eaten fresh, frozen for smoothies, and fed to animals for a nutritious, high protein snack.