The mulberry tree

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white mulberry tree
In sharp contrast to its native cousin, the white mulberry abhors shade, thriving in sunny, disturbed settings such as urban areas, overgrown fields and fence rows. (Tami Gingrich photo)

Here we go round the mulberry bush, mulberry bush, mulberry bush
Here we go round the mulberry bush, so early in the morning.

I grew up singing this English nursery rhyme, and even though it is mainly about accomplishing the day’s tasks, I probably wouldn’t even give the tree a second thought had I not been singing about it from such an early age.

While patronizing a local business a few days ago, I happened to glance over and notice a tree growing next to the building hanging heavy with fruit. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and as I went over to investigate, I was astonished to see that it was a mulberry tree. I stuffed a huge handful of the purple fruit into my mouth and headed back into the store to ask the owner if I could harvest some of the berries. I love wild edibles and mulberries are something I haven’t had a chance to experiment with. Yet there was more to this story to unfold.

ground mulberries
The white mulberry produces so much fruit that it can begin to pile up on the ground below its branches. (Tami Gingrich photo)

Invasive

Since I’ve been thinking seriously about planting some sort of tree that caters to wildlife in one of my open meadows, I immediately decided I just had to have one of these. I went home that day and jumped on the phone, calling local nurseries to see if they had them in stock. No luck. No one had them. Finally, someone on the other end of the line gave me an interesting answer: “The Division of Wildlife highly discourages nurseries and garden centers from selling mulberry trees because they are an invasive, non-native tree from China.” Well, I had my answer, sort of. I knew that here in northeast Ohio, native mulberries are scarce, as we are just on the border of their range. But I just didn’t know enough about the species to realize that we have one listed as a non-native, invasive in our area.

Red mulberry (Morus rubra) is our native species. However, most people don’t even notice it or know that it exists. That’s because it is extremely uncommon, rarely found outside the protective canopy of the forest. It is a shade-loving tree, typically found in the understory and rarely attaining heights higher than 60 feet. Preferring mature, moist woodlands, it can be found growing on wooded slopes and along the edges of the forest.

White mulberry (Morus alba) is a non-native species that originated in China. Cultivated there as a host plant for the silkworm caterpillars, whose prized silk was used in the production of fine fabric, the tree was introduced to New York in 1827 in a failed attempt to continue the industry in North America. In sharp contrast to its native cousin, the white mulberry abhors shade, thriving in sunny, disturbed settings such as urban areas, overgrown fields and fence rows. It is much smaller than the red mulberry, barely reaching heights of 40 feet.

Differences

white mulberry tree
White mulberry leaves are a brighter green and shiny, compared to the darker, lackluster finish of red mulberry leaves. (Tami Gingrich photo)

Although there are several different factors to consider when attempting to differentiate between the two species up close, a couple of characteristics tend to stand out above the rest. Although both trees sport leaves that occur in several different shapes, those of the white mulberry are a brighter green and shiny, compared to the darker, lackluster finish of the red mulberry. Perhaps the best way to tell the two apart is during the time that they are fruiting in mid-June through August. Contrary to its name, the white mulberry not only produces berries that are white but also red and purple. These multicolor fruits are produced in large clusters along the branches, falling off easily when disturbed and building up in measurable quantities beneath the tree. In contrast, each red mulberry fruit is produced singly along the twigs. The berries are larger and sweeter than those of the white mulberry and are always a deep black color when ripe. Because our native mulberries produce fewer berries, there is seldom a build-up of wasted fruit on the ground below.

Unfortunately, as an invasive species, the white mulberry has not only invaded available habitats, it has also invaded the gene pool, often hybridizing with our less common, native species, resulting in trees that are difficult to identify and categorize.

As I harvested fruit from the white mulberry tree I had discovered, I couldn’t help but notice the commotion as a number of bird species gorged on the bounty above me. Being an avid birder, I had to take time out to step back and observe just how many different ones were dining at the location. American robins, cedar waxwings, eastern bluebirds, northern cardinals, American goldfinches and gray catbirds were all taking part in the feast, adorning the branches like ornaments on a Christmas tree. I could tell that a crow, vocalizing from a nearby location, was telling me to hurry it up so that it could take a turn as well. The number of berries covering the ground below was notable. Surely other animals take advantage of these easy pickings beneath.

white mulberry tree
Although it’s considered invasive, American robins, cedar waxwings, eastern bluebirds, northern cardinals, American goldfinches and gray catbirds are some of the bird species that enjoy eating white mulberry fruit. (Tami Gingrich photo)

Mulberries

white mulberry tree
Mulberries are a superfood loaded with iron, protein, fiber, calcium, vitamin C and antioxidants. (Tami Gingrich photo)

Like blackberries, mulberries are made up of a group of tiny globules called drupelets, at the center of each is a seed. When birds and other mammals consume the berries, the sweet, pulpy material is easily digested, leaving the seeds. As the animals travel along, these seeds eventually pass through their digestive systems and are expelled as excrement. Birds are especially effective at spreading seeds due to their ability to fly long distances. If the seeds happen to land in a favorable location, they may eventually germinate, sprouting new trees.

The list of health benefits from mulberries is a long one. Mulberries are a superfood loaded with iron, protein, fiber, calcium, vitamin C and antioxidants. After collecting several quarts of fruit from the newly discovered white mulberry tree, I decided that my best option would be to make syrup. I reviewed several recipes online until I found one that I liked and went to work. The result was absolutely delicious over ice cream and I have plans to use it in a recipe for homemade sorbet to help me through the upcoming heat wave.

Alas, I won’t be planting a white mulberry tree. I’m sticking to my guns to prevent the spread of invasive species. In fact, I am going to do my best to prevent further spread by continuing to harvest berries from the trees I discover in the future. Heck, every berry that I consume is one less that the birds will be able to spread across the countryside. Don’t you agree? (Wink, wink.)

mulberry syrup
With the white mulberries Tami Gingrich harvested, she made a delicious syrup to drizzle over ice cream. (Tami Gingrich photo)

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Hey love grab a cutting in Fen. You’ll have fruit the same gear if not the next. For sure. I have several. Just from cuttings. Really good in lemonade. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Hi. I was also under the opinion that there is a 3rd mulberry type – black mulberries – that sounds very similar to your red mulberries. I love in Northern NY, zone 4, and my ‘black mulberry ‘ is literally a bush. Any shoots over 8 feet die off over the winter. The are individual berries, with stems coming right out of the branches and trunks, and a deep black before they are ripe. They are some of the tastiest berries I know of.

    Are there actually 3 types? Or is mine basically a red mulberry? They are delicious mushed over ice cream, but I haven’t tried freezing them. Even in the fridge, unprocessed, they only last 2- 4 days.

    I do get birds, but I’ve never had the piles of fruit you show. Mine started ripening 1-2 weeks ago, and I expect I’ll still have a few berries ripening in August.

    I don’t get a lot of shoots starting – I think because of the occasional -20° temperatures here. Mine grew from a 6″ cutting I was given from a zone 5 area in NYS.

  3. I’m 53 and have been eating all types of mulberries my entire life and so have my kids. I use them as one of my winter predictors helping me to determine what the upcoming winter will be like, although this year (2024) they are acting out of character, especially the white ones. In my area most of the mulberry trees became ripe in May which is very unusual for up north in the Great Lakes Region. And the white mulberries were becoming ripe before, not all, but some of the dark mulberries are. Very strange.
    This isn’t an exact science, but a loaded down mulberry tree can indicate that the wild animals need to eat as much mulberries as possible to fatten up for either a colder than normal winter, and/or a heavier snow fall than normal. This applies to other wild fruits too. It used to apply to people, but since we now have vehicles and our roads are snow plowed and most of our homes have heat it isn’t as big of a deal to be able to watch the wild plants and wild animals to predict what winter will be like.
    This year the mulberries and other so called “wild” fruits are coming on sooner then they should and in more then normal abundance, and then going away faster than normal. Each fruit is here and gone one after another in quick succession. This could indicate that in my area (NE Indiana/ eastern extreme lower great lakes) it could be the type of winter where it comes early and it dumps snow on us (or ice but most likely snow) but the winter storm affects doesn’t stick around long and it warms up……..then it dumps snow on us. I’m not talking like just a few inches of snow. I mean more like a winter storm even just a mild one. And then it doesn’t stick around for long and it warms up…….back and forth like that. I could be wrong. I could be right. I don’t know for sure yet. I still need to study some other plants. Some madicinal plants help us know what type of sickness will be the worst over the winter like will it involve the lungs more or the sinuses more? Or the digestive system?

    Each mulberry tree will have mulberries that taste differently even though they look the same.
    The flavors I have come across throughout my life are:
    -sweet
    -tart
    -sweet & tart combined (my favorite)
    -mashy and almost tasteless
    -barely noticable taste of anything.
    -big infested (spit it out fast. Yucky) Every tree gets some buggy ones though.🤮

    There can be a white mulberry tree, beside a dark purple tree, that is beside a dark red mulberry tree, that is beside a light pink mulberry tree, and they will all taste differant. I have encounted that very scienaro many times.

    We eat them fresh from the tree for the best flavor because they don’t seem to preserve well although I have not yet tried making raisens with them.

    We put them in vanilla iceream, in pancake batter, also in the batters of muffins, cakes, and many other things. And of course mulberry pie. In my opinion the white ones are not as good in cooking and baking as the dark ones are. Mulberries are good with sugar and milk on them either with or without cool whip. (I use either or both almond milk & coconut milk)

    The good old fashion easy way to “pick” them is to send a kid up the tree to shake the branch over an old, sheet or tarp or whatever. Or grab a branch above the sheep and shake, rattle and roll! You will become dotted with purple. 🤣

    I have very often noticed that wild black raspberries can be found growing under, beside or real near mulberry trees. So can blackberries too, but not as much as black raspberries.
    We were blessed to have 1 mulberry tree that grew ripe purple ones, white ones and dark pink ones all on one tree. For real! Finally this year I found another tree like that, and it was growing in town of all places.

    Our poultry always went to the mulberry trees near the house to pig out. My little parrot and my painted turtles loved the mulberries. A few of my dogs liked going out to the mulberry trees and eating them with me and the kids.

    I remember my youngest daughter being about 5 months old as I was wearing her in a baby back pack carrier as I was standing at my favorite mulberry tree pigging out with my 3 year old. Suddenly I see the baby’s cute little thumb and pointer finger going towards a ripe mulberry on the tree and she actually picked it and shoved it into her mouth!

    I picked a few more and cupped them in my hand back at her and she begane shoving them in her mouth. I had 2 purple handed and 2 purple faced young ones to bathe that night.
    If anyone is prone to becoming gassy easily then they might want to take it easy on the mulberries of all kinds because they can be rather, um, “explosive” for some people.

    Thank you for the mulberry article. I hope lots of people will see it and read it. I have encountered many people who think they are dangerous and highly toxic . I don’t know where they got that from. I didn’t realize that some of them are considered as invasive. They sure do help feed our wild life and those of us who know what they are. So to me they are a good invasive invasion 😉🙂
    —– BJ Bobbi Jo Rucker 🌻💜🙂

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