The Mulberry Forest

Why Grow Mulberries?

Read our full Mulberry booklet here.

The red mulberry (Morus rubra) is a native fruit tree producing blackberry like fruits in great abundance.  The white mulberry (morus alba) is a mulberry of Asian origins bread as a fodder crop to feed silk worms.  It was imported to the US in a failed attempt to create a domestic silk market and has since naturalized across most of the country and is even considered invasive in some areas. Its leaves are high in protein and other nutrients and highly palatable to most livestock and even edible for humans.   Its fruit is nearly as delicious and nutritious as the red mulberry.  Both the red and white mulberry and their hybrids can be found growing in backyards and fence rows across the country, and without any pruning, fertilizing, spraying or management of any kind, they annually produce a crop of high value fruit for the delight of children and birds. 

Attempting to grow traditional fruit crops in our humid region without any chemicals has proven very difficult. Mulberry, however, provides an almost perfect solution to those wishing to produce a nutritious food without sprays.  It has very few pests and diseases and produces annually without fail (even producing secondary flowers if the first succumb to a late frost).  Grafted varieties bear a small amount of fruit even the first year and continue to increase in abundance until reaching a mature production of up to 300 lbs of fruit per year.  Leaf crops can even be harvested several times per year and either fed to livestock, dried and used as a tea that reputedly helps with diabetes, or steamed and eaten.  Additionally the wood is somewhat rot resistant, an excellent fire wood, and valued by turners for making bowls.  

So, why isn't this seemingly ideal tree crop a staple of the American food system?  One possible reason is because of the white mulberry's reputation as a weed tree, and its notoriety as a stainer of sidewalks.  Another reason is the short shelf life of mulberries.  Unless frozen or dehydrated, mulberries only stay good for several days in the refrigerator.  Furthermore, they are soft and easily damaged during harvest and transport.  The last reason is the birds.  Some varieties of mulberry reach a mature height of 70 feet with 90% of the crop out of reach to all but the many species of bird that relish the ripe fruit.

These limitations are easily overcome in our age of technology and innovation.  From processing the fruit, to intensive pruning to manage the size, to allowing hogs and chickens to do the harvesting instead (turning fruit into meet and eggs), creative uses for the mulberry abound.

So which varieties should be grown, and at what spacing, and how should they be harvested?   Well, these are the questions we are exploring at Solid Ground Farm.  Thanks to funding from a USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant, we have collected and planted over 50 varieties of temperate mulberry and planted them in various configurations from hedgerows, to multistory forest gardens, to alley cropping systems, and traditional orchards.  Only in the second year of experimentation, we do not have concrete recommendations as of yet, but we do see great promise in the tree.  It is reasonably easy to propagate by grafting and layering,  and it is easy to establish and quick growing.  Most of the trees have immediately born fruit and the small crops, regardless of variety, have been universally enjoyed by the youth at our summer camps.  Grafted trees typically reach a good production by year four or five. After a few more years of growing we feel confident in recommending the following cultivars for fruit production in zone 6:

Everbearing mulberries (ripen fruit over an extended period):
Kip Parker (rubra x alba hybrid): a winner in flavor, size, and productivity. Tree has a somewhat upright growth habit and benefits from pruning and training to keep fruit in reach.
Illinois Everbearing (rubra x alba hybrid): Most commonly sold mulberry. Large fruit, delicious flavor, tried and true. Large tree due to it's Morus rubra parentage.
Silk Hope (rubra x alba hybrid): favorite mulberry of renowned mulberry enthusiast AJ Bullard. Propagated from wild tree identified in Silk Hope, North Carolina. Similar to Illinois Everbearing.

Mulberries with large fruit and good flavor:
Oscars (rubra x alba hybrid): largest fruit of the domestic mulberries that I have grown. Good flavored black berries. Not as productive as some others.
Multicaulis (Morus alba): famed mulberry mania cultivar imported from China in the 1600's for leaf production and recently reintroduced as a fruit producer via France. Long, complex tasting mulberries. Heavy producer of fruit and good tasting edible leaves.
Kokuso (Morus alba): Korean mulberry with large purple fruit. Tastes to me like purple drink. Largest leaves of any mulberry in my collection.

Mulberries for Leaf production (all mulberries have edible leaves, including rubra. They can be eaten raw when young and tender. Can be cooked and eaten as they mature a little (younger the better) and then dried and used as a tea when they become too fibrous). Mulberry leaves like other parts of the plant contain latex and can agitate people stomachs, especially those with sensitivity to latex.
Multicaulis: bred to be nutritious for silkworm consumption.
Northrup: reported to have better flavor than many others.
There are also tons of Asian cultivars that surely are better suited for leaf production but have not yet been widely imported to the US.

More information to come.  Stay abreast of our progress by liking "Solid Ground Farm" on Facebook.

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