We planted our mulberry tree not long after we moved into our home, seven years ago. It was planted during a lengthy and severe drought, and survived with minimal attention.
With the end of the drought we experience a couple of much welcome wet years, not so welcome when it come to fruit crops, given the high humidity bringing on brown rot – so frustrating!
While this year has been, what you would call, a little more “normal”, mother nature has still thrown us some curve balls! Several weeks ago, we had much yearned for warm weather, but it come with horrendous gale force winds. Bush fires errupted just 20-30km to the north east of where we live, and continued to burn out of control for a few weeks, before being listed as ‘contained’. We witnessed convoys of CFA (Country Fire Authority) units from around the state as they traveled past our home to join the battle, and relieve the local crews.
Two days after the fires began, the rain started – it rained for a day and a half, with 150ml/6inches of rain recorded in our back yard. All of that rain led to flooding, some within just a few kms of our hometown. So from fires to flooding rains within a few days, we all decided that Mother Nature wasn’t very happy with us at all!
Even while our little mulberry tree had to endure so many different weather/climate events during its early years, each your it produced a handful of berries, just enough to hold our interest, and delight the taste buds. This year it is different, we are being rewarded by a lovely harvest of berries from our little tree (she still has a lot of growing to do…), I’ve was picking a basket of berries every couple of days, bringing them inside and getting creative in the kitchen, as well as sharing with family friends and fellow gardeners.
I made mulberry compote that we enjoyed with pancakes one day and yoghurt the next. I have a jar of white wine vinegar sitting on the bench, it is where those that are not quite right go, so will have a lovely jar of mulberry vinegar at the end of the season. I have made a mulberry clafoutis, replacing the cherries with freshly picked mulberries, and I’ve made a ricotta and jam tart topped with mulberries. There are a few bags of mulberries in the freezer ready to make jam or sorbet, or both, of course we have been eating fresh mulberries every day and I’ve even made tea with the leaves.
I must admit that I knew nothing of the mulberry tree right up until a month or two ago! But after observing the development of catkins into bright bauble-like berries, I just had to try and find out as much as I could about the black mulberry (morus nigra). Ughhh! I found myself going from one website to another, picking up a book or two, getting snippets of information here, a little more there, and frankly, my head felt cluttered!
So, in a rather large nutshell…
Below is what I’ve learned about Morus Nigra, interspersed with snippets about Morus Nigra “Hicks Fancy”. You’ll find information about what you need to know if you want to plant a black mulberry tree in the garden; about how to use the luscious, dark reddish-black berries in the kitchen; about a myth, and some other readings that I enjoyed during my research, and that I you might enjoy reading also.
About the Mulberry Tree
Botanical name: Morus nigra
The Moraceae family not only includes Morus genus (the Mulberry), but also includes a huge number of mainly tropical and subtropical species of deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs. While some genera produce edible fruits, including figs, jackfruit, breadfruit, mandarin melon berry, and morus (mulberry), others are prized for their timber and latex.
The fruit of Mulberry Trees is delicious and with the fruit rarely, if ever, seen on supermarket shelves, you need to grow it yourself (unless you know where there are trees free for the picking somewhere…). An easy to grow fruit tree that produces a bountiful harvest of fresh berries in the spring, much sought after shade in the summer, and after dropping their leaves in the autumn (fall), they allow the sun to shine in to your garden through the winter. Personally, I think that planting a mulberry tree in your yard, if you have the space, just makes sense. While the mulberry tree is a large tree, you can purchase dwarf varieties which are perfect for growing in both containers and small suburban back yards.
If you have the space, these beautiful trees, (with light-coloured bark, and lightly serrated, beautiful soft green leaves that turn to yellow and gold before falling to the ground in the autumn) look fabulous as the branches develop and spread with time to create a true feature for your garden.
In Australia the main varieties of morus nigra grown are ‘Black English’ and ‘Hick’s Fancy’. Hicks Fancy’ is a smaller tree with very good crops of slightly smaller berries, though the berries are still quite large and luscious, and is the variety that we have in our garden.
In the Garden
Climate: Warm Temperate, Cool Temperate, Arid (Dry)
Companions: Comfrey, nasturtium, garlic, chives, onions, marigolds.
To ensure the benefits of companion plants, plant within 15m/45 feet of the tree.
Chokos and grape vines are said to benefit from mulberry trees. Chokos benefit from the shade of the tree, thus avoiding leaf burn (though if I planted a choko, someone very dear to me would quickly remove it and compost it! He’s clearly not a fan.)
Grape vines grown around mulberries are said to prevent fungal diseases such as botrytis – I now know where to plant grape vines…
Avoid: Black Walnut trees.
Dormancy: Mulberries are deciduous, losing their leaves in the colder months. When they actually lose their leaves depends on the temperature, not the length of day.
Drought tolerant: Yes
Fertilising: Late winter/early spring top dress with garden compost and leaf mulch. You can use an organic fertilizer, but avoid high nitrogen fertilizers, as they encourage rapid, weak growth that does not withstand high winds.
Flavour: When fully ripe the fruit is very sweet and juicy with a slight tartness.
Flowers: Flowering in spring, beautiful catkins form along the branches of new seasons growth before developing into berries that will grow plump and and ripen to a deep reddish black.
Frost tolerant: Yes
Fruit: The berry is an aggregate fruit, that is, it consists of lots of tiny round fruits clustered together, so it is actually a fruit made up of many individual tiny fruits.
Fruit Colour: Fruit ripens from light green/pink to a dark red/black
Fruiting/Harvest Months: The fruit forms from late spring through to early summer – September thru November in Australia. The great thing about a mulberry tree is that the fruit doesn’t ripen all at once, but ripens over two or three months.
Fruit Size: 2-4cm/1-1½” long
Growth rate: Morus nigra is slow growing, unlike other speciess.
Harvesting: Unlike other species, the fruit of morus nigra doesn’t easily fall from the tree when ripe, which isn’t a bad thing, particularly when strong winds are common where you live.
I’ve found that I can almost identify a berry that is ripe for the picking… The little stem seems to have a slightly yellowish tinge to it, and the berry is plump and dark from top to bottom. To pick them, I gently pull the berry away in the opposite direction to which it is hanging – if it is ready, it will easily come away in your fingers.
For those of you who do not like to get their fingers stained, you may prefer to wear gloves when picking, but generally the colour of your hands and nails will return to normal fairly quickly.
Health Benefits: Long used in Chinese herbal medicine, mulberries are said to be high in protein and antioxidants, and a good source of iron, vitamin C, and several plant compounds and have been linked to lower cholesterol, blood sugar, and cancer risk.
Heat tolerant: Yes.
Height: 2-5m / 6’-15’
Leaves: The leaves of the morus nigra are matt green with serrated edges, they are soft to touch, and turn yellow before falling in autumn. The shape of the leaf is generally heart shaped, but can vary from single to multiple lobed leaves, with different shaped leaves occuring on the same tree. Leaves can be quite large, there are those on my tree that are bigger than my hand!
Life: Morus nigra, can live for a couple of hundred years, but the majority last only a couple of generations, so I guess that our tree will be feeding those who come after us for some years!
Litter: Leaf litter from leaf drop, late autumn, early winter. Fruit litter when fruiting.
Months for fruit to ripen: Two to three months.
Mulch: Mulch inside the drip line to reduce moisture loss, but make sure that you allow a 20cm/8in barrier from the trunk.
Origins: Growing successfully from Asia to Europe, North America to Australia, it is thought that the mulberry originated in Persia.
Pests and diseases: Birds love mulberries, if your tree is a manageable size, you can net the tree to protect the fruit from birds.
Bacterial and fungal diseases may be a problem in humid climates.
Root rot can be a problem in poorly draining soil.
Pollination: Self Pollinating
Propagation: Can be either grafted or grown from cuttings, though for Morus Nigra, grafting maybe the most rewarding option. You will need another species of mulberry to use for your rootstock, though. If you chose to try to strike from cutting you need to take 1-1.5cm 1/2″ diameter hardwood cuttings in winter, plant in a pot of starter mix, and cover with a cloche (upturned cut off plastic bottle).
Pruning: Oh the confusion! When I began reading and researching about pruning mulberry trees, and when is best to prune, it seemed that there are so many opinions!
- Prune in winter while dormant;
- don’t prune in winter, while dormant, as it can lead to vigorous spring growth that is susceptible to wind damage;
- prune after the spring crop has finished;
- prune late autumn;
- pruning is not necessary if you want a shade tree.
One thing most agree on is that pruning is required to produce new growth, as this is where fruit is produced! It is also, obviously, required if you wish to maintain a manageable sized tree for netting during fruiting season. If you chose to maintain the tree as manageable for netting, you should start this process when the tree is young.
Anyway, I will leave it up to you as to when to prune, I’m thinking I may just continue to keep it tidy, as I do with my espaliered fruit trees, and see how we go…
I would recommend wearing long sleeves and gloves when pruning, as the sap can cause skin irritations.
Ripening: Mulberries don’t ripen all at once, and they ripen from a light crimson to a deep purple with a hint of deep red, so tend to be redder, and not quite as black as blackberries.
Roots: The roots of the mulberry tree are invasive, so you need to ensure that they are planted well away from buildings, water pipes, sewerage pipes and septic tanks.
Soil: Mulberries require well drained soil, and prefer a neutral soil pH (6.6-7.3pH), though generally tolerant of most soil types, alkaline soils may result in slower growth of the tree. So really, it should do well in most soil conditions.
Staining: Morus nigra is notorious for staining, so keep this in mind when deciding whether to purchase a tree. Dropped fruit will stain walkways and driveways, also bird droppings from the birds that have taken their share are likely to stain.
After harvesting your bounty, remember to remove your shoes or wash the soles of your shoes before heading indoors, as mulberries will stain your carpet. Of course, it’s a given that they will also stain your fingers, but apparently using a wet mulberry leaf to rub helps to remove the stain.
Staking: If you are wanting a tree with multiple trunks, staking may be required to ensure stability.
Storage of berries: Unwashed berries will keep two days in a refrigerated, closed container. I also spread them onto trays and freeze them, once frozen they can be placed into a bag or container and kept frozen for use in the kitchen at a later date. They can also be dried.
The reason why you cannot normally find fresh mulberries for sale, is that the fruit has a very short shelf life, and is too perishable to package and transport.
Sun: Plant in full sun.
Taste: The flavour of the mulberry is sweet and tangy, and the fruit of morus nigra are said to be the best tasting of all mulberry species.
Toxicity: For those who are sensitive to birch pollen mulberries may be a problem, the milky sap can cause skin irritation, and eating unripe fruit can cause an upset stomach.
Watering: Moderate Watering – Mulberries don’t like wet feet, however if summers are dry, they do need watering during dry spells. Fruit drop or dried fruit can be an indicator that it’s time to water.
Weeding: Keep the ground under the tree canopy weed free (if possible) to avoid competition for nutrients.
Width: 2-5m / 6’-15’
Years before fruiting: Grafted trees, as well as those grown from rooted cuttings will begin fruiting in the first two or three years, as ours did. However, the crops are only teasing and small. It is now 7 years old and we are beginning to reap the rewards. It is said that morus nigra can often take up to 15 years to reach full production.
In the Kitchen
Mulberries are delicious, just use them as you would other fresh berries
- In syrup.
- Made into jams and jellies
- Transformed into wine
- A delicious syrup, not dissimilar to raspberry vinegar!
- The leaves are made into tea that is said to be a valuable source of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, with many health benefits
- But there’s more… The leaves can even be used similarly to the grape leaf for enclosing morcels of food and cooked. I loved reading a post by Miriam Kresh on how she come about foraging for mulberry leaves. Below is a quote from her writings, and if you follow the link you will discover how she used them in her kitchen…
“Earlier than usual one morning, I saw three elderly Sephardic ladies standing by my tree. They were picking the young leaves. Never shy with fellow foragers, I asked the eldest what they did with them. She turned her wrinkled face up to me and explained, “When mulberry leaves are tender, we stuff them, like grape leaves.” She showed me the bagful she’d already gathered. “It’s the medium-sized ones from the lower branches,” she said. “The big leaves are tough, and the ones from high up are dirtier.” ”https://forward.com/food/177972/foraging-israel-lamb-stuffed-mulberry-leaves/
Pyramus and Thisbe – The myth
Don’t you just love it when there is a story or myth related to a plant or tree that you have in your garden? The following is a quote from britannica.com:
“The, hero and heroine of a Babylonian love story, in which they were able to communicate only through a crack in the wall between their houses; the tale was related by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, Book IV. Though their parents refused to consent to their union, the lovers at last resolved to flee together and agreed to meet under a mulberry tree. Thisbe, first to arrive, was terrified by the roar of a lioness and took to flight. In her haste she dropped her veil, which the lioness tore to pieces with jaws stained with the blood of an ox. Pyramus, believing that she had been devoured by the lioness, stabbed himself. When Thisbe returned and found her lover mortally wounded under the mulberry tree, she put an end to her own life. From that time forward, legend relates, the fruit of the mulberry, previously white, was black.”
Extra Enjoyable Reading
Foraging Israel: Lamb-Stuffed Mulberry Leaves “In a dusty field near my apartment in Petach Tikvah, a huge, old mulberry tree stands alone.”
Mulberry Sorbet “Mulberries. Until recently, a mere mention this tree would get me going. I hate mulberry trees.”
Round the Mulberry Bush “Just about everyone, it seems, loves mulberry trees.
Birds, poets, writers, healers, drinkers, weavers, cooks, insects–the list goes on and on–all have an affection for this terrific tree.”
For fear of having totally bored you, I have decided to hold back any mulberry specific recipes for now, but will post them in the near future, for anyone who is looking for ideas to use up their bumper crop of mulberries.
Until next time…
Happy gardening and…
- Fruit Growing Australia (1997), Louis Glowinski, Hachette, pp 257 – 259
- Growing Fruit in Australia (1990), Paul Baxter and Glenn Tankard, Pan Macmillan, pp 143 – 144