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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, Himalayan Mulberry; 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 on different trees. Male flowers produce excessive amounts of allergy-causing pollen. Parthenocarpic female cultivars, however, such as those listed below, produce seedless fruit automatically without male trees or pollen being present.
Bloom: Spring, or spring and fall, or sporadically throughout the warm season, depending on cultivar.
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. Morus nigra, Black Mulberry, often takes up to 15 years to attain full production.
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. Morus nigra, Black Mulberry, fruit are considered to be the best tasting of any mulberry species.
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 fully 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 do not release from the stem until very ripe, when they fall to the ground, so scissors or clippers are needed when harvesting. In strong winds, Morus nigra trees keep their fruit while that of other mulberry species blow off.
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. The date of leaf-out in late winter or spring varies by cultivar.
Morus nigra leaves, underneath, are uniformly covered in soft hairs. Topside, they are covered in short, stiff hairs and are more resistant when stroked toward the stem rather than away from 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, Black Mulberry, cannot hybridize with other mulberry species because it has 308, instead of 28, chromosomes in its genome. All hybrids are between other species.
The cultivars below are listed in order of flavor, from best to worst.
Morus nigra: 'Persian' Black Mulberry Self fruitful, strongly staining, black fruit to 1.25", excellent sweet blackberry flavor. It slowly grows to 30' high, in USDA zones 5-11. This tree offers an alternative to blackberry vines. Blackberries have large seeds, while self-fruitful Black Mulberries are seedless and equal or better in flavor.
Morus nigra: 'Black Beauty' A dwarf cultivar, self-fruitful, strongly staining, black berries 3/4" long, excellent sweet blackberry flavor. It produces both a spring and a fall crop, gradually increasing production over many years. It is slow growing to 8-12' high as a shrub or small tree, thrives in USDA zones 7-11, and can be pruned to be a hedge.
'Dwarf Black Mulberry' is a variation with 1/4" long fruits. This plant has a small, slow growing root system and will benefit from monthly applications of compost. It also needs more frequent watering than other mulberries and can benefit from drip irrigation under mulch. All dwarf Black Mulberries do well in large containers.
Morus hybrid: 'Shangri La' Mulberry Self fruitful, staining, black fruit with a sweet-tart flavor, and 1.5" long berries. It grows 25' high in USDA zones 6-10 and originated in Naples, Florida.
Morus alba: 'Dwarf Everbearing' Mulberry Self fruitful, strongly red-staining, black berries to 0.75"; rapidly grows 8-12' high. USDA zones 5-11. It is often mislabeled and misrepresented as Morus nigra.
Morus alba: 'Beautiful Day' / 'White Fruiting' Mulberry Self-fruitful, non-staining, white colored berries to 1", mild and sweet, said to taste like mild honey or white peach. It grows to 30' high. Birds are less attracted to white fruit. 'Sweet Lavender' is a pink to light purple-tinged variation. White colored mulberry fruit make the best-tasting dried mulberries.
Morus macroura: 'Pakistan' Mulberry Self fruitful, non-staining, up to 4" long, reddish-black fruits, and less juicy. The flavor is mediocre: raspberry-like with an undertone of unripe green fruit. It grows 25-30' high, in USDA zones 8b-10. The branches are hardy to 25°F. This cultivar has few problems, except that the long fruit are often blown off in windy locations, when half green to half ripe.
Morus macroura: 'White Pakistan' Non-staining, up to 4" long, yellow-white fruits, less juicy, with a sweet honey-like flavor. It grows 25-35' high in USDA zones 8b-10. The long fruit are often blown off in windy locations, when half green to half ripe.
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.
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.
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

Cultivation and Uses

USDA hardiness zones: 5-11, depending on cultivar.
Chill hours: About 200 for cultivars listed on this page.
Heat tolerant: Yes, however, fruit production is highest between 75-85°F, drops substantially above 85°F, and stops at 90°F.
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 except for dwarf cultivars.
Mulch: Use organic mulch, kept at least one foot from the trunk.
Spacing: The distance between trees should be at least 10'.
Planting: Dwarf cultivars can be grown in containers. Plant trees 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 and will not produce the most desirable type of cultivar, the parthenocarpic (self-fruiting) female tree.
Uses: Edible fruit and leaves, ornamental, shade, bird garden (non-staining berries are preferred).

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 colored 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.
The best mulberry to grow in windy locations is Morus nigra, Black Mulberry. The fruit stay attached to the tree until very ripe. Dwarf Black Mulberry, also known as 'Black Beauty' is well behaved in home gardens because of its excellent flavor, its wind-proof behavior, and the smaller size of the tree. The only caution is that it needs more care, especially watering, in the first few years to develop its root system. It should be located away from the house because of its staining berries. If these are always harvested, however, staining will not be a problem.
When a plant is labeled as "Non-fruiting Mulberry", it is a pollen producing male and should be avoided.
Some counties and cities erroneously ban all mulberry trees as pollen producers. However, self-fruiting, non-pollen-producing female trees are allowed in many.
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. Morus nigra has naturalized in only a few states.



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