Mulberry trees

by James Alexander-Sinclair

There are two sorts of mulberry grown in the UK: Morus nigra, which is the fruiting, delicious variety and Morus alba, which produces tiny, lumpy and sour-tasting berries.

Mulberry (Morus nigra) fruitsI wonder how many of you out there grow mulberry trees? Probably not enough of you. I have vivid memories of the first mulberry tree I came across in the grounds of a big old house in Surrey.

My recollection is not one of the great horticultural spectacle of an ancient and gnarled tree, but of the chin dribbling-deliciousness of a ripe mulberry fruit. Those who have eaten mulberries will know exactly what I mean; those who have never tried them are really missing a trick. Mulberries are bigger and firmer than raspberries, juicier than the fattest blackberry, with a slight tartness on first bite that quickly transforms into something sweeter. When they're properly ripe the slightest touch leaves a livid stain on the fingers as red as a showgirl's kisses. If you've been sneakily feasting on mulberries there's no way you can easily conceal the fact.

There are two sorts of mulberry grown in the UK: Morus nigra, which is the fruiting, delicious variety and Morus alba, which produces tiny, lumpy and sour-tasting berries. This latter is the more famous tree, however, because (as every schoolchild knows) it provides about the only food that a silkworm will tolerate. The grubs feed on the mulberry leaves before wrapping themselves into cocoons made out of silk (between 300 and 900 metres of the stuff). These cocoons are then unravelled and the strands woven into fine fabric that is not only smooth and sexy but also disproportionately warm (silk long johns are by far the best sort of winter underwear). It takes about 1500 cocoons to make a pound of silk.

In the 19th century there was the equivalent of a gold rush over mulberries in the United States. There was massive speculation and excitement about growing mulberry trees and the long-term possibilities of making a fortune in silk. So much so that at one point old trees were selling for the equivalent of £75 each. The market eventually collapsed and most of the trees died from blight and extreme cold.

The reality is that silkworms need too much work, so you'd be much better off planting black mulberries, with their big, blowsy leaves and bark the colour of cork. Morus nigra seems to live for a very long time - even after falling over - and many older gardens have ancient specimens. (There is a black mulberry at Loseley Park in Surrey that was apparently planted by Elizabeth I). The trees respond well to pruning and make a wonderful addition to any medium-sized garden.

If you make jam from your mulberries you might wish to try an interesting Turkish recipe for mulberry jam with feta cheese.

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Gardeners' World Web User 12/08/2008 at 23:14

yes they do stain don't they! my hands are still purple from trying to pick them this morning in my local park in leicester, they are just starting to ripen but most tantalisingly out of reach! But a special treat when i did get some. will be heading back in the next few weeks....

Gardeners' World Web User 15/08/2008 at 20:08

I was visiting London Zoo yesterday and there is a spectacular specimen to see by the lovebirds and avaries.Had I known at the time what it was, I may have been tempted to eat one but now I do know I will taste next time. Live and learn.

Gardeners' World Web User 16/08/2008 at 16:34

The Mulberry tree has always fascinated me since I first learnt of its existence, sadly at the age of 23. My first sighting of one was in Forbury Gardens in Reading. Forbury Gardens forms part of the grounds of the great old Reading Abbey. I thought then how majestic and ancient it looked with its knarled and twisted bark and imagined that the old monks of the abbey planting it long ago aware of its healing properties. I was with my partner at the time, who was a botanist, and he introduced me to the Mulberry tree and told me that the fruit was edible. The sweet taste of the fruit was heavenly, we lingered eating its fruit, its red juice kissing our fingers, its protective branches sheltering us from the midday sun. The busy people of Reading rushed past appearing to be oblivious to its existence and wonder. Every part of the tree is edible and used in other countries for treating alignments. It has been over looked and gone almost unnoticed in the West ever since the 19th century because it is hard to exploit! Silk worms take too much time and its fruit doesn't travel. Mrs Mulberry allows you to take just as much as you need to satisfy your hunger. Isn't this a true spiritual teaching and a valuable lesson that we need to adhere too in the west if we are to survive.

Gardeners' World Web User 22/08/2008 at 17:20

I think that the mess is worth all the other benefits (so interestingly phrased by you, Vonoba). I had a client once who was so worried about stains and mess that he wanted me to fell a perfectly good mulberry tree. I refused and eventually managed to make him see sense!

Gardeners' World Web User 28/11/2011 at 18:36

Fruit can also be a problem when it gets on the soles of peoples shoes, so the black mulberry is not a plant to put near a path or entrance. The white mulberry is a graceful tree with beautiful autumnal colour and is more like to stay upright than the black which you often find has toppled over in ancient specimens and continued to grow from that position.

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