The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Mulberries: Morus sp.

White mulberry fruitsEvery year when we were kids, my siblings and I picked mulberries out of a large tree in a nearby park.  We liked the fruit, but not as well as the blackberries and raspberries that ripened at the same time, and our one attempt at a mulberry pie was pretty awful.  So I put mulberries out of my mind...until I started reading that mulberries can provide all of the food you need for a pig or flock of chickens for several months in the summer.  Then, of course, my ears perked up.

What are the different kinds of mulberries?  There are three species of mulberries that can be found growing in the United States.  The White Mulberry (Morus alba) is native to Asia, but was widely introduced in the nineteenth century as fodder for a silk industry that never panned out.  White Mulberries are cold hardy, but have rather insipid fruits.  Red Mulberries (M. rubra) are a U.S. native with tastier fruits than White Mulberries.  Finally, Black Mulberries (M. nigra) are members of another Asian species, this one selected primarily for the highly tasty fruits.  Unfortunately, Black Mulberries can't be grown in many parts of the U.S. (like the southeast), but hybrids between Red and White Mulberries (like the Illinois Everbearing Mulberry) produce the best of both worlds --- tasty fruits on hardy trees.

How do you grow and prune mulberries?  Mulberries are one of those trees you mostly leave alone.  Plant them in full sun with fifteen feet of space on every side, then prune out dead branches if you feel like it.

How do you propagate mulberries?  Mulberries are difficult to grow from seeds since you must wait at least a decade to know whether you've developed a good variety, and since trees can change sex when young.  More tried and true propagation techniques include hardwood, softwood, or root cuttings and grafting.  When taking hardwood cuttings, split the lower ends of the cutting or include a small heel of two year old wood to promote rooting.  Take softwood cuttings in midsummer and treat with a rooting hormone.

How do you harvest mulberries?  Be prepared for your tree to grow for a decade or more before it feels like fruiting, especially if grown from seed.  Once mulberries begin to fruit, though, they're highly dependable since they bloom late and are rarely affected by late spring frosts.  Depending on which variety you have, your tree will ripen its fruits over a month to three months during the early to late summer.  To harvest the fruits, spread a sheet under the tree, shake the branches, then pour the results into a bucket of water.  The fruits will sink and everything else will float off.

Why are mulberries a permaculture favorite?  Mulberries are one of the least picky fruit trees out there.  They don't mind drought, pollution, or poor soil, and often grow as weeds even in harsh city environments.  Even the varieties that aren't quite up to par as people food produce wholesome berries that can feed your pigs or chickens for up to three months during the summer.  The leaves are high in protein too.

Are you growing them?  I'd planned to buy an everbearing variety to put into our new forest pastures this year or next, but this post pushed me over the edge and I put in an order for an Illinois Everbearing Mulberry in March.

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This post is part of our Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Here in MD I am finding mulberry to be an awful weed. Every year I am pulling up these weeds that grow very quickly but have a huge deep tap root that make them an incredible chore to pull, and if I miss any of the root it comes back. We have several wild trees back behind the house yet, I am finding mulberry seedlings on the opposite side of the house and even down the street. The birds love these berries and crap the seeds out where ever they perch thus spreading viable seeds across a wide area.
Comment by Rebecca Fri Apr 9 15:12:48 2010
Hey, and don't forget, you can grow silkworms on them too.
Comment by Errol Fri Apr 9 15:13:17 2010
I remember reading that mulberries were planted away from cherry trees by farmers in times gone by to distract birds from the cherry trees. Supposedly it worked. I can attest that the white mulberry has little taste but bears fruit prolifically that birds love.
Comment by Lisa Fri Apr 9 23:33:02 2010

Rebecca --- Weediness is a plus in the permaculture world. I wouldn't mind at all if they self seeded all over the chicken pasture --- then we could just raise more chickens (maybe add a pig.) It does sound like a pain in your yard, though!

Daddy --- You know that's how gypsy moths got over here, right? We introduced them to breed a better silkworm. I'd be afraid to try again! :-)

Lisa --- I've read that too! I wonder if it'll work to keep the birds away from our blueberries, another prime bird crop?

Comment by anna Sat Apr 10 08:12:08 2010

In some areas, mulberry fruits are affected by popcorn disease, a fungus which causes normal fruits to swell up to twice the normal size and turn gray. It reminds me of corn smut in a way.

If your mulberry gets popcorn disease, remove the infected fruit and destroy it. If you allow it to fall to the ground, the fungus will overwinter and send up more spores the next spring. This year I am experimenting with laying a tarp under the tree to hopefully block the spores from drifting up to infect the fruit, and to prevent the infected fruit from reaching the ground. I hope after a few years I can control it.

Comment by Eric in Japan Mon Mar 14 18:47:46 2011
Sounds like you need chickens. I'll bet a flock would make short work of those problematic fruits.
Comment by anna Mon Mar 14 19:35:24 2011

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