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Mulberries: Red, white and goo

June 30, 2014
Mark Spreyer

Mark Spreyer

This is a guest post by Mark Spreyer, Director of the Stillman Nature Center in Barrington, Illinois. He can be reached at: stillnc@wildblue.net

We publish his article about mulberries as our July 4th gift to our readers. 


Thy stout heart

Now humble as the ripest mulberry

That will not hold the handling

Coriolanus, Shakespeare

 

For those of us of a certain age, mulberries and childhood went hand in hand. Whether it was singing “Here we go round the mulberry bush” or reading Dr. Seuss’ And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, the word mulberry was all around us.

I was an adult before I learned that actual mulberry trees were all around us as well. We have two species, one red and one white, one native and one introduced. Both are wildlife favorites, and both grow here at Stillman. So, let’s take a walk down our local Mulberry Street.

Mulberry Leaves

White mulberry - Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

The variously lobed red and white mulberry leaves look but don’t feel alike. White mulberry leaves are smoother to the touch than red mulberry leaves. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

I have often had students, from elementary school to college, identify trees by looking at their leaves. Some have teeth, some have lobes, and some have neither.

Those that have lobes often have a set number. Sugar maple, for example, usually has five lobes.

Enter the mulberry. Whether red or white, mulberry leaves can be unlobed to variously lobed. No, they aren’t about to be limited by a set number!

Yet some tree books seem desperate to quantify the number of lobes. One source writes that mulberry leaves are “sometimes 2-lobed, sometimes 3-lobed, often unlobed….” Well, isn’t that helpful?

There is a pattern to the location of the different leaves. Multiple-lobed leaves are more likely to be found on young trees and root sprouts while unlobed leaves are found in the crowns of mulberry trees.

Red Mulberry (Morus rubra)

This is our indigenous mulberry. It ranges from southern Vermont down to southern Florida across to central Texas and back north to southeastern Minnesota.

Red mulberry.  USDA

Red mulberry. USDA

In Illinois, red mulberries can be found growing in almost every county.

These trees prefer moist woodlands and deciduous bottomlands rubbing branches with American elm, hackberry, silver maple, and box elder.

Red mulberry is a medium-sized tree that can reach a height of fifty feet with a diameter of two feet. Its broad rounded crown makes red mulberry a useful shade tree.

Both red and white mulberry trees are named after the color of their fruit but be forewarned:  when red mulberries  are red, they are NOT ri

Mulberries.  Courtesy Kristi Overgaard

Mulberries. Courtesy Kristi Overgaard

pe.

The tasty mulberries are ripe when they are purple-black, like a blackberry. When reaching for that first juicy handful, do remember that Shakespeare (as usual) was right. A ripest mulberry easily crumbles in your soon-to-be purple palm.

Not just humans enjoy a handful of sweet mulberries, but wildlife dines on mulberry street as well.  A partial list of birds enjoying a midsummer meal of mulberries would include eastern kingbird, American robin, gray catbird, wood duck, starling, Baltimore oriole, northern cardinal, cedar waxwing, brown thrasher, plus red-bellied and red-headed woodpeckers.

Some mulberry munching mammals include opossum, raccoon, fox, skunk, an assortment of squirrels, plus a few dogs I know!

Simply put, red mulberry is one of the best summer fruit trees for wildlife.

White Mulberry (Morus alba)

Now that I think of it, it doesn’t matter to hungry animals if the berries are red or white. This brings us to white mulberry.

Like its red counterpart, white mulberry is a medium-sized tree with variously lobed leaves. It was introduced to N. America during colonial times (see below). It can now be found growing from Maine to Minnesota, south to Texas and east to Georgia. It also is naturalized across most of Illinois.

When white mulberries are ripe, they are indeed white or sometimes pink. The closer you look, though, the more confusing it gets since red and white mulberries freely hybridize. The resulting hybrid fruits come in a variety of colors between white and purple.

White mulberries will grow in almost any upland habitat being particularly at home in urban environs.

Silk Road to Mulberry St.

If you break the leafstalk of a white mulberry, milky sap exudes. This Elmer’s goo is the foundation of a multi-cultural exchange that dates back thousands of years.

Take white mulberry leaves and add the domesticated Chinese silkworm caterpillar (Bombyx mori) and the result are large cocoons spun of the finest silk.

Unwrap that silk and one can weave it into garments that were desired by traders around the world.

What comes next? The ancient and famed silk road (trade routes actually) that crossed Asia from China to Europe.

Others thought there might be an easier way to get their silk. After it was discovered that imported silkworm caterpillars found native red mulberry leaves to be too tough, tens of thousands of white mulberries were being raised by nurserymen in colonial Virginia.

Some of those who planted these promising saplings were Ben Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson.

While a few American entrepreneurs succeeded in this labor-intensive silk business, the growing textile industries soon found ways to make quicker profits.

The neglected white mulberry trees fed birds and mammals that, in turn, spread white mulberry seeds around a good chunk of the continent.

Back on Mulberry Feet 

Mulberries are indeed good street trees. Once established, they can withstand salt, drought, air pollution, and soil compaction. Some will say, there is little need to plant mulberries as wild animals are doing a fine job at that.

However, when the berries fall thick from the trees they can make you feel like you have double-sided tape on the soles of your shoes. Your gooey shoes pick up bits of gravel and so it goes.

Keep in mind that mulberries are dioecious meaning there have separate male and female plants. Planted male mulberries, of course, won’t bear fruit.

With apologies to Dr. Seuss– perhaps you like sticky feets or just want handfuls for eats, either way visit Stillman for treats along our Mulberry Streets.

 

Mulberry Jam Recipe

Mr. Spreyer’s note: This recipe comes from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.   In particular, the cooking credit belongs to Deb Singer and Kathy Andrews.

I expect that red mulberries are used more often than white mulberries in this recipe.

I say this because I think we are used to ripe berries being red or darker in color (i.e. blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries).  However, I bet if you hybridize your jam with some white mulberries, it would taste just as good.

Oh yes, a mulberry pie would also be a nice summer treat.

 

3 cups crushed mulberries

½ cup lemon juice

1 package (1.75 ounces) powdered pectin

6 Cups sugar

 

Bring berries, lemon juice and pectin to a rolling boil. Add sugar. Return

to a boil and boil for 1 minute. Skim off foam. Ladle into prepared jars and process in a water bath for 10 minutes

 

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 HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 30, 2014 9:04 am

    I just ate my first mulberries of the season yesterday and I have no idea if they were red or white or hybrid variety. The interesting thing is that here in the midwest the white mulberry is often targeted as a invasive species, but most people can’t tell the difference between red and white mulberries.

    • June 30, 2014 9:09 am

      Good job, Presley….you got the point of this post. It makes no earthly difference if it’s the native or the non-native, does it?

  2. June 30, 2014 8:27 pm

    We have a female red mulberry behind my garage. It is great for wildlife – birds and squirrels make nests and eat the fruit. But it is terrible as a street tree. The roots cause damage to foundations, concrete drives, and sidewalks. The berries are very acidic and rot out roofs and stain concrete. They grow too large for urban environments, so no on all accounts for street trees if planting female trees for berries. Why else plant one if not getting berries? It is only a moderately attractive tree in my opinion.

  3. Kurt permalink
    June 30, 2014 8:29 pm

    who is the stud in the top picture?

  4. February 10, 2015 11:09 am

    White mulberry fruit is almost always purple-black when ripe, and this has nothing to due with hybridization. It is the normal color. The white fruit is an aberration, like an albino squirrel, that has been propagated, and unfortunately, was seen by Linnaeus when he named it.Red mulberry looks almost nothing like it at a glance; it is most often confused with catalpa or basswood, never with white mulberry. The leaves are up to 14 inches long and almost never lobed on mature trees.

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