Monday, December 5, 2011

Permaculture Plants: Mulberry

Red Mulberry (Morus rubra)
Great photo from Missouri Permaculture 
Note how the "red" mulberry fruit really turns dark purple when ripe.

Common Name: Mulberry (Black, Red, and White)
Scientific Name: Morus species (M. nigra, M. rubra, M. alba)
Family: Moraceae
Black Mulberry (Morus nigra)
The "typical" Black Mulberry fruit will mature from green to whitish-pink to red to deep purple-black.

White Mulberry (Morus alba)
This is actually a variety of the White Mulberry tree - The Russian Mulberry (M. alba var tatarica)

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.  Black Mulberry fruit is delicious, especially the improved cultivars.  They are sweet and tart and taste like... well, mulberries.  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 it typically holds by most eaters.  Most White Mulberries are used for the leaves, to feed silkworms, and it is not really raised for its fruit.

The Mulberry Tree in Autumn, c. 1889 - Vincent Van Gogh

Black Mulberry Trees (M. Nigra) are native to southwest Asia.  It has been cultivated for thousands of years in that area.  Red Mulberry Trees (M. rubra) are native to eastern North America and was used quite a bit by the native population.  White Mulberry Trees (M. alba) is native to northern China and has been cultivated for thousands of years to feed silkworms.  Many varieties and hybrids have been developed for improved flavor, increased production, and higher yields of fruit.

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. (according to Roman mythology, this is how the red mulberry tree was created)

A plate of mulberries - fruit can range from about 1 inch (2.5 cm) to over 3 inches (8 cm) long

Primary Uses:
  • Fresh eating (fruit)
  • Leaves - cooked (used like grape leaves to wrap foods, can be used like cooked greens, just discard the water in which you cook the leaves)
  • Baked goods (pies, tarts)
  • Dried
  • Murrey (a fruit puree eaten as a pudding or cooked with meat)
  • Jams, Preserves
  • Ice Creams
  • Wine, Cordials
  • Teas

Secondary Uses:
  • Food for wildlife, especially birds.
  • Food for domestic poultry.
  • Can be coppiced for fuel (wood), food (leaves), or crafts (twigs); 1-4 year cycle is typical
  • Windbreak (only the Russian Mulberry, M. alba var tatarica)
  • Food source for the cultivation of silkworms
  • Traditional medicinal uses - reported that mulberry root may help tapeworm, and a lot of fruit or the inner bark of the tree can both be used as a laxative (this information has not been verified)

Yield: 5-25 lbs per tree
Harvesting: August-September.  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.

Storage: Fresh fruit only keeps for a few days.  The fruits can be dried.  The fruits also freeze well.

Male and Female Mulberry Flowers
Male flower stalks (long and thin) and female flower stalks (short and round) will often form on the same tree - making it self-fertile.  However, cross-pollination from another mulberry will typically provide greater yields.

Mulberry leaves have a lot of variability - even in the same tree.

Young Red Mulberry tree bark

Older Red Mulberry tree bark

USDA Hardiness Zone: 5-9
AHS Heat Zone: 9-4
Chill Requirement: 300-500 hours/units depending on the species and variety

Plant Type: Medium Trees
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Canopy Tree
Cultivars/Varieties: Many varieties available.

Many are Self-Pollinating/Self-Fertile, but most will produce greater yields if allowed to cross pollinate

Flowering: Late Spring (will not be effected by frost)

Life Span:
Years to Begin Bearing: 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 of Useful Life: M. rubra (less than 75 years), M. alba (150 years), M. nigra (300+ years!)

Mulberry Tree in autumn

Size: 30-60 feet (9-18 meters) tall and wide
Roots: taproot or heart-shaped root pattern (a number of main roots all spreading out and down)
Growth Rate: Fast

Illustration of Red Mulberry - Charles Sprague Sargent

Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Tolerates light shade (about 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.

Can root from softwood cuttings taken in the summer. Seeds need at 13-16 weeks stratification for germination

Young trees 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 can cause stomach upset at best and hallucinations at worst
Stuffed Mulberry Leaves - here's a recipe! (click on the link below)

Black and White Mulberry Ricotta Tart - here's a recipe! (click on the link below)


  1. We plant mulberries near cherry trees. Both fruit about the same time and birds prefer mulberries over cherries. We both get the mulberries but people get all the cherries without netting, etc.

  2. Mark Shepard has cultivated a zone 3-4 hardy mulberry!

    1. Probably Morus alba tartarica, which is often used as rootstock for other mulberries. It's hardy to zone 3. If that's what he's growing, he didn't cultivate it (in the sense that he developed it), just grows it.

  3. Mulberry leaves have in many ways the same contents as green tea but often more of it.
    For example 6x the calcium and 2x iron and about 20% protein. But the most interesting ingredient is 1-Deoxynojirimycin (DNJ), which is said to protect effectively from diabetes.
    There are studies going on in Japan. I think that's a good reason to have it for lunch next time, isn't it?


  4. I don't think the first photo is of a morus rubra. The leaves appear to be too smooth. They appear to lack the pubescence on the underside. Morus rubra and morus alba are not named for the color of the berries. In fact, morus alba can produce berries that are as dark as morus rubra.

  5. Great article. How about a mulberry at the edge of a wet area. Also, what kind of root system does Morus nigra develop?

    Thank you

  6. I bought two tree deal from Burgess,yahooey!!!This now my third year,fruit in my orchard.Cannot wait for mulberry sauce for my strawberry ice cream,Mulley for meat,then "PIG'S IN THE MULBERRY",(BLANKET"...LOL...I have own root stock fruit,but any grafted tree's should be banned,need all the sprays that are hurting the insects.The own root stock fruit trees,are heartier,don't need all the chemicals,killing our bees.The Russian Mulberry can give soon fruit while folk wait for on own root fruit to mature.Here in Penna,NO GRAFTED FRUIT TREE CAN LIVE WITHOUT CHEMICALS.The Russian Mulberry can save our pollinator's.Want soon fruit,get a mulberry,but NEVER BUY GRAFTED FRUIT TREE'S.THE CHEMICALS ARE KILLING !! BEFORE I PLANTED MY ORCHARD,WISHED I PLANTED ALL THESE.Want low maintenance orchard?,Start with Russian Mulberry's,then OWN ROOT STOCK FRUIT TREES.While waiting for mature flowering tree's Mulberry's can save nature.I sprayed a grafted tree yesterday night,awoke to wild been dead on leaf.Without bee's,Earth dies.Never again will I purchase a grafted root stock.I have to spray each week to keep them healthy,that is alot of dead bee's.If you have own root stock one wants to graft another variety,fine,or graft to a thorn apple,but insects love grafted tree's.Im caught in a spray trap.Considering allowing the insects to have them,being thankful for my RUSSIAN MULBERRY'S.JUST WANT FRUIT UNTIL MY OWN ROOT STOCK APPLES AND CNERRYS START TO BARE FRUIT.RUSSIAN MULBERRYS,SAVIOR!!!!

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