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Growing Mulberry: Morus

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Overview

Moraceae, the Mulberry family, includes Jackfruit, Figs, Mandarin Melon Berry, and Morus, the Mulberry genus, with 17 accepted species. Many mulberry hybrids exist, making identification difficult.
The name of the species does not indicate the color of the fruit, but rather the color of the leaf buds. For example, nearly all white mulberry cultivars have black or purple berries.

Description

Form: Tree. Some cultivars grow as a shrub.
Lifespan: 500 to 1000 years for Morus nigra: black mulberry; 100-250 years for Morus alba: white mulberry; 100-250 years for Morus macroura; and 75 years for Morus rubra: red mulberry.
Leaf retention: Deciduous.
Growth rate: Rapid for most species, but temperature dependent. Morus nigra has a slow growth rate.
Mature Size: 10-50' high and 10-30' wide, depending on cultivar.
Flowers: Separate male and female green catkins, most often present on different trees. Male flowers produce excessive amounts of allergy-causing pollen.
Bloom: Spring.
Self-fruitful: Most cultivars sold at nurseries are female-only and set seedless fruit without pollination. A few cultivars require a second plant as a pollenizer. These produce seedy fruit or none at all if not pollinated.
Years before fruiting: 2-3 from rooted cuttings or if grafted onto rootstock, 8-10 if grown from seed.
Fruit: The "berry" is an aggregate fruit, with many small round fruits clustered together. Dropped fruit will stain sidewalks and carpets, although some cultivars are stainless. Its flavor depends on its ripeness, the cultivar, and the soil, sunlight, and climate where the tree is grown. Seedless Morus nigra fruit are often preferred over blackberries.
Months for fruit to ripen: 2-3. Berries ripen a few at a time on most cultivars. Berries will continue to ripen to black if picked when red. For several cultivars, the fruit is ripe on the tree when it changes from shiny black to dull black.
Morus alba and Morus macroura fruit can be harvested by shaking the branches and letting the fruit fall onto a tarp on the ground. Morus nigra fruit are difficult to pick because they do not release from the stem, so scissors or clippers are needed when harvesting. In the kitchen, scissors are used to remove any remaining stem parts from the berries.
Morus nigra trees are preferable in strong winds to other Morus species. In high winds, the nearly ripe fruit of Morus nigra remain on the tree until harvest while that of other mulberry species blow away. Morus nigra fruit do automatically release from their stems and fall to the ground when very ripe.
Storage after harvest: Unwashed berries will keep two days in a refrigerated, closed container. Freezing, eating the same day, or baking immediately is recommended. They can also be dried. Fresh mulberry fruit is too perishable to ship and is not carried in stores.
Leaves: Green, serrated edges, variable shape, turn yellow in fall. Date of leaf-out in late winter or spring varies by cultivar. Morus nigra leaves underneath are uniformly covered in soft, downy hairs. Morus nigra leaves topside are covered in short, stiff hairs and are more resistant when stroked toward the stem. Morus alba leaves can be stroked topside in either direction with the same effort. The leaves of Morus alba also have a waxy, glossy appearance on top while the those of Morus nigra are relatively dull.
Stems: No thorns. Milky sap contains latex.
Roots: Aggressive, extensive, lateral roots are no more than 2' deep, extending beyond the tree's drip line. Smaller, vertical sinker roots grow from the laterals. Keep these trees away from sidewalks, driveways, foundations and septic systems to avoid damage from roots.
Cultivars of Note:
Morus nigra cannot hybridize with other mulberry species because it has 308, instead of 28, chromosomes in its genome. All hybrids are between other species.
Morus alba: 'Beautiful Day' / 'White Fruiting' Self-fruitful, non-staining, white colored berries to 1", mild and sweet, said to taste like mild honey or white peach. Grows to 30' high. Birds are less attracted to white fruit. 'Sweet Lavender' is a pink to light purple-tinged variation. White mulberries make the best-tasting dried mulberries.
Morus alba: 'Dwarf Everbearing' Self fruitful, strongly red-staining, black berries to 0.75", insipid taste grows 6-8' high. Often wrongly labeled and misrepresented as Morus nigra.
Morus alba or hybrid: 'Weeping Mulberry' / 'Pendula' Not self-fruitful, staining, reddish-black, poor-tasting fruit if pollinated. An ornamental that grows 8-15' high and wide.
Morus hybrid: 'Shangri La' Self fruitful, staining, black fruit to 1.5", grows 25' high, USDA 6-10. A popular cultivar because of its sweet-tart flavor. Originated in Naples, Florida.
Morus macroura: 'Pakistan' Self fruitful, non-staining, up to 4" long, reddish-black fruits, raspberry flavor, less juicy. Grows 25-30' high, USDA 8b-10, branches hardy to 25°F. These trees hide their berries under their leaves, making them less visible to birds. This is one of the most popular cultivars because of its flavor and general lack of problems. The fruit stems detach at the tree, not at the fruit, so their short green stems must be cut or pulled off the fruit.
Morus macroura: 'White Pakistan' Non-staining, up to 4" long, yellow-white fruits, sweet honey-like flavor, less juicy. Grows 25-35' high, USDA 8b-10.
Morus nigra: 'Dwarf Black Mulberry' / 'Black Beauty' Self-fruitful, strongly staining, juicy black berries to 1.25", excellent flavor. Very slow growing to 10-12' high as a shrub, USDA 7-11. Can be pruned to be a hedge.
Morus nigra: 'Persian' Self fruitful, strongly staining, black fruit to 1.25", excellent flavor. Slowly grows to 30' high, USDA 5-11.
Wildlife: Attracts birds and squirrels. Bird netting or holographic bird scare tape can be used to protect fruit. Bird droppings of most varieties will stain.
Toxic / Danger: Milky sap is a skin irritant. Unripe fruit will cause an upset stomach and hallucinations.
Origin: East Asia for Morus alba; Himalayas to Southern Asia for Morus macroura; Western Asia for Morus nigra; Eastern North America for Morus rubra.

Morus macroura: 'Packistan' Mulberry fruit
Morus macroura 'Pakistan' mulberry fruit

Cultivation and Uses

USDA hardiness zones: 5-11, depending on cultivar.
Chill hours: About 200 for the cultivars listed here.
Heat tolerant: Yes.
Sun: Full sun.
Drought tolerant: Somewhat.
Water after becoming established: At least monthly during drought, but weekly when fruiting if fruit is to be harvested. Water at the drip line. Discontinue watering mid November to encourage dormancy.
Soil: Well drained, tolerant otherwise. Acidic to neutral soils are preferred. Alkaline soils may slow growth.
Fertilize: Composted manure can be used once a year mid-winter but is not usually necessary.
Mulch: Organic mulch kept at least one foot from the trunk.
Spacing: Distance between trees should be at least 10'.
Planting: Dwarf cultivars can be grown in containers. Plant away from a house to avoid root damage to foundations and, if berries are staining, carpet stains from fallen fruit. Also plant away from a septic system as the roots can clog pipes quickly.
Pruning and weeding: Pruning in the winter when trees are dormant results in less sap flow, but the trees respond with strong spring growth. If dwarfing is desired, some recommend pruning in the middle of summer when the trees respond less vigorously to being pruned.
Another pruning technique to reduce tree height is, during the first winter in the ground, to cut the central trunk low, and allow new leaders (main vertical trunks with side branches) to grow. The next winter, all but two leaders are removed and one new leader is allowed to grow in the spring. Each following winter, the oldest leader is removed and one new one is allowed to grow, so there will always be three leaders, one year apart in age.
Mulberries do not need to be pruned unless they develop crossing branches in the middle, which is more likely to happen with Morus alba. Prune no more than 25% to avoid sending the tree into shock.
If you wish to keep a tree at a desired height, start pruning when the tree is young. Mulberries bloom partly on spurs of old wood, but mostly on new wood, so pruning does not eliminate the entire crop.
Remove all vegetation growing under the canopy of the tree to avoid competition for nutrients.
Litter: Fruit if not harvested, leaves late fall or winter.
Propagation: Hardwood cuttings taken in January, and seed developed in the presence of male and female flowers. Morus nigra is more difficult to start from cuttings than other mulberry species. It will graft to other mulberry species. Seeds do not always breed true.
Uses: Edible fruit and leaves, ornamental, shade, bird garden (with non-staining berries).

Comments

Dark-colored mulberries can be used as a substitute berry in blackberry recipes and wine. Mulberries are frequently used to make sherbet, ice cream, jam, jelly, and pies. White mulberries pair well with apples and pears and can be used in most recipes needing a mild-flavored berry. Mulberry leaves are used in cooking like grape leaves, and also to make a tea.
Silkworms are fed the leaves of Morus alba or Morus macroura. They will not eat Morus nigra leaves. Morus alba was originally imported into North America for silkworm production. It has naturalized throughout most of the continent and hybridized with Morus rubra to the extent that pure Morus rubra are hard to find. Morus nigra has naturalized in only a few states.
Morus alba and Morus rubra fruit in general are inferior in flavor to that of Morus nigra. Some growers mislabel Morus alba as Morus nigra, possibly out of ignorance. Many nurseries seem to know little about mulberries, probably because they are requested less often. While mulberry trees are often purchased when dormant and leafless, the best way to confirm the species identity of the plant is when it is in leaf. Buy from a trusted nursery and look up the reputation of the nursery's wholesale source.
When a plant is labeled as "Non-fruiting Mulberry", it is a pollen producing male.
Some counties and cities erroneously ban all mulberry trees as pollen producers. However, self-fruiting, non-pollen-producing female trees are allowed in many.



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