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Mulberries – by Elizabeth McCorquodale

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A black mulberry.

A black mulberry.

If, just for a moment, we disregard the fruit of this ancient tree and concentrate instead on the leaves and the flowers; if we forget about the juiciness of the purple berries and think instead of worms and international espionage; if we think of scientific record-breakers and then, and only then, do we add into the mix that the fruit is delicious and ever so slightly rare, then we will be able to approach the mulberry from a suitably reverential standpoint, because the mulberry is a tree that is absolutely dripping with history, science and fascinating facts.

This very unassuming looking tree holds the record for the fastest movement in the entire living world: the pollen of the white mulberry, Morus alba, is catapulted from the stamen on the male catkin at more than half the speed of sound! That’s more than 150m per second! Not bad for a little spring system within the stamen on the male catkin.


The mulberry is the food of the silkworm, and vast wealth and industry has grown up around these trees all over the world. It was believed if you could grow mulberries, you could grow silk. The problem, here and elsewhere, has always been based on a small technicality… first, you need to find the right mulberry. Silkworms will feed on the leaves of black mulberries (the variety that is hardy and most suited to the UK climate), but only on the soft young leaves – unfortunately, they much prefer the tender leaves of the white mulberry. King James I and his gardener, William Stallenge, made the rather costly mistake of planting thousands (yes, thousands!) of black mulberries across every county of England with the intention of pinching the silk industry from under the noses of the French. While the silkworms were happy enough to munch on the tender young leaves of these poor trees, they just couldn’t cope with the tough mature leaves, and the trees, so recently planted, had no reserves to feed the hoards of hungry caterpillars. The French silk industry was safe.

While the black mulberry, Morus nigra, is the poor relation in the silk stakes, in the flavour stakes it comes out tops; though both the black and the white are delicious and juicy, the black is sweeter. Mulberries drop their fruit as soon as they ripen, and for this reason these trees are traditionally grown in short grass. The easiest way to collect the fruit is to lay sheets beneath the laden tree and shake the branches.

mulberry tree copy

A mulberry tree, even a young one, is a thing of beauty. The leaves are a beautiful rich green, changing to a rich yellow in autumn, and the bare winter branches grow gnarled and interesting long before it seems right that they should. There is a weeping form of the white mulberry that takes up less space in the garden, but be aware that the black mulberry is hardier, so if you are in a cold spot, choose the black mulberry every time.

Use mulberries fresh or cooked just as you would raspberries or blackberries. You will rarely, if ever, find mulberries in stores or markets – they just won’t travel – so make the most of this beautiful, tasty and fascinating tree by planting it in your garden. You can grow them in pots, as long as you repot them each spring and pay careful attention to watering. Both the black and white mulberry are widely available. For the sake of introducing a little extra history into your garden you could go for M. nigra ‘Chelsea’ (syn. King James), which is supposed to be a direct descendant of one of King James’ plantation. Whichever one you go for, fruiting should begin 2–3 years after planting.

Mulberries, though, are particularly heavy bleeders, so they must be pruned when they are fully dormant, about a month or so after the last leaf has fallen. Prune them just to open the canopy and to remove weak limbs that are growing at impossible angles, unless you want to prop them up at a later date – a practice that is very often seen with old, gnarled mulberries.

Further information
* The fruit of both the black and the white mulberry are red to black when ripe; their species names arise from the colour of the fruit bud, not the ripe fruit.
* If you would like to have a go at silkworm farming there are several UK websites from which you can order silkworm caterpillars or eggs!

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