If this title has put “Pop Goes the Weasel” in your head then my job here is done. Just kidding. This post is all about mulberry trees – the many reasons you might want to grow a mulberry tree, and some reasons why you might not want to.
If you’re thinking about growing a mulberry tree or bush but aren’t sure if it’s a good idea or aren’t sure what type of mulberry is best for you, then this post is full of information to help you decide.
It’s a long post, but I’ve tried to make it easily scannable so you can skip to the parts of interest to you.
The Different Types of Mulberry Tree
Mulberry is a versatile plant because there are many different types, from giant 70-foot tall trees to three-foot dwarf shrubs grown in pots. Mulberry fruits range from long and cylindrical to nearly round, and from white to dark, almost black in color. Fruitless (male) trees are grown ornamentally and for raising silkworms. (Although anyone planting a fruitless variety in their backyard is missing out).
Which variety of Mulberry is right for you depends on your available space, climate, location, and, most of all, your individual goals for your property. Below I’ll talk about the most common mulberry varieties and what distinguishes each.
There’s a lot of conflicting information and misinformation regarding mulberry species, both on the internet and within nurseries. I’ve tried to use only reliable sources for my research and present the most accurate information. However, with so much conflicting information, I’m bound to say something that some mulberry experts disagree with.
Nevertheless, I’ve tried to untangle the confusion and lay out the different mulberry varieties as accurately as possible.
Red Mulberry Tree (Morus rubra)
Red Mulberry is native to eastern North America. Its berries are deep red to black and the flavor varies from insipid to nearly as delicious as the black mulberry, depending on the variety or cultivar. It grows wild in much of eastern North America. Native Morus rubra fruits have good flavor, but often cultivars have improved flavor.
White Mulberry Tree (Morus alba)
White Mulberry is native to northern, eastern, and central Asia, and is the mulberry species used to feed silkworms.
Morus alba has the most cultivars of any mulberry, probably because of its use in the silk industry. It’s also one of the hardier mulberry species.
The berries can be white, lavender, or black in color. The flavor of the fruits varies widely, from insipid to flavorful and sweet, but they tend to lack the element of tartness present in the coveted nigra, or black mulberry.
However, many of the best commercial mulberry varieties are hybrids of red and white mulberry, Morus alba x rubra.
Black Mulberry Tree (Morus nigra)
Black Mulberry is native to Southeast Asia. Its fruit is dark red to black, very juicy and messy. Nigra’s sweet-tart flavor is generally considered the tastiest of the mulberries. The fruit is very fragile, making it impossible to pick without staining your hands red. like any dark-colored mulberry fruit, the berries will stain sidewalks, skin, and clothing.
Some experts claim that true Morus nigra species are not cold-hardy, only growing in USDA zones 8 or 9 and above. Yet, many mulberry plants sold are labeled Morus nigra and hardy down to zone 6. Additionally, Morus Nigra does not easily hybridize with other mulberry species. So, the hardy mulberry you buy labeled nigra might not be a true Morus nigra, but an alba or alba, rubra cross.
Pakistan Mulberry (Morus macroura)
Also known as Himalayan, Tibetan, long mulberry, and shahtoot, these produce long fruits, four to six inches long. The fruits are also firmer and less juicy than other mulberries.
It’s difficult to determine the hardiness of Pakistan mulberries because they tend to come out of dormancy early and are susceptible to late freezes. They are hardy to approximately zone 8 and possibly colder, but late freezes can cause severe dieback. Commercially available Morus macroura plants are sometimes labeled as hardy to zone 6 or 7. In this case, be wary if your area often gets late frosts. Or, the plant could be a mislabeled Morus alba, which is in fact hardy to zone 6.
Sashtoot is the Hindi word for mulberry. This name can refer to any mulberry species but typically refers to nigra or macroura.
Kokuso Korean Mulberry (Morus latifolia)
Kokuso is one of the more difficult mulberry species to find, at least in North America. It is native to Korea and is one of the most cold-hardy mulberries, recommended for USDA zones 5 to 9. The Kokuso mulberry fruits are dark in color and up to two inches long and half an inch wide.
Confusion About Mulberry Species
In researching this article, I ran into a lot of conflicting information about mulberry species, particularly Morus nigra and M. macroura. After some digging, I’ve realized that mulberries are a “taxonomic mess.” A great resource to start sorting out what’s what when it comes to conflicting mulberry information is Growing Mulberry.
It’s widely stated that Morus nigra only grows in warm climates, from about USDA zone 8 and above. However, many mulberries labeled nigra are also supposedly hardy to zone 6. Either these mulberries are less hardy than labeled, mislabeled Morus alba cultivars or alba x rubra hybrids, or there are in fact hardy varieties of Morus nigra. Only genetic testing can provide a definitive answer.
For most growers, the actual species name is less important than the features of the plant. If the flavor is good, the tree thrives in your climate and has other desirable features, then its true taxonomy has little importance.
For this reason, it’s best to sample fruit from a mature plant before choosing your variety of Mulberry. When this isn’t possible, the second-best option is to purchase your mulberry plant from a reputable nursery and ask questions or read reviews from previous customers.
Dwarf Everbearing Mulberry Tree
Dwarf everbearing mulberry is probably the easiest variety to get a hold of in the US. It’s marketed as a fruiting mulberry that’s great for growing in containers and small spaces. It’s available at many nurseries, both local and online.
This is the variety I just purchased from my local nursery. It was labeled as Morus nigra, but I’m assuming it’s actually Morus alba or M. alba x rubra, since its tag says it’s hardy down to zone 5.
Reasons to Plant a Mulberry Tree
Enough about mulberry species. Let’s take a look at ten reasons why you might want to grow a mulberry tree in your backyard.
1. Mulberries are easy to grow
Mulberry trees and shrubs are great beginner fruits to grow because they don’t require much care. Just mulch the area beneath the canopy and water deeply about once a week during dry spells.
Like most fruit trees, annual pruning when the tree is dormant is beneficial to achieve the form of tree you want. This could be to manage its size or to train the tree into a well-formed shade tree.
Young plants need regular water, but once established, mulberries are drought-tolerant. Full sun is best, but mulberries can tolerate a little shade. Mulberries can grow in poor soil, and, in areas where they are native or naturalized, they are pioneer species. Mulberrys are truly difficult to kill. So make sure to think it through before planting one.
If you’re a beginning grower, working to develop your green thumb, mulberry is an excellent fruit to start with for an easy win.
2. Mulberries are fast-growing
Depending on the species and growing conditions, mulberry trees grow a couple of feet per year up to five or six feet per year.
When grown from seed, they can take five to ten years to begin bearing fruit. But, to get a head start, go with a grafted tree or hardwood cuttings. This is what most nurseries sell. Growing in these ways skips the juvenile stage and the plants only take one to three years to begin fruiting.
Nursery stock will probably yield a small crop of fruit the year after planting, and a larger crop the second year. You might even get lucky and get some fruits in your tree’s first season in the ground.
The early fruits may not have as good of a flavor as more mature trees. So if you’re disappointed in the taste of your mulberries the first year they fruit, give the tree another year and you might be happier with the flavor.
3. Mulberries make excellent shade trees
Because they are fast-growing and have a dense canopy, mulberry trees can quickly transform your yard, creating a shady microclimate in just a few years. A standard-sized tree can create a lovely exterior room-like space beneath its lowest branches.
To get this effect, choose a full-sized variety, and as the tree grows, keep pruning to raise the canopy until it’s comfortably above head height.
In temperate climates mulberries are deciduous, but in the tropics or sub-tropics, they’ll hang on to their leaves year-round.
4. Mulberries produce abundant fruit
Mulberry fruits resemble blackberries. Like a blackberry, mulberry fruit isn’t a true berry but a cluster of druplets. While blackberries are aggregate fruits, with each lobe of the fruit originating from a single flower, mulberries are multiple fruits, with each lobe of the fruit originating from a different flower.
Mulberry fruit flavor varies by species and variety, from bland to delightful. So pick your variety carefully if you’re after the fruit.
The fruits are wonderful for fresh eating but they don’t have a long shelf life, so are best enjoyed straight from the tree. They are also good in baked goods, juiced, frozen, and dried. When dried they can be used like raisins.
To harvest fruit from tall trees, simply place a tarp or sheet under the canopy when the fruits begin to ripen. When ripe, they fall to the ground on their own. You can also give the tree a shake and the ripe fruits will fall down onto the sheet.
5. Mulberries have edible leaves
Young mulberry leaves are edible as cooked greens. Cook them up in a stir fry as a spinach replacement. Mid-sized leaves can be used in place of grape leaves for wrapping. Use them to wrap up other foods such as rice into a neat bundle then steam well to cook.
Dried or fresh, the leaves are also made into a tea resembling green tea. Don’t eat the leaves raw, because mulberry sap contains a latex that is mildly toxic to humans. See the caution below.
Like other leafy greens, mulberry leaves have many health benefits. Please remember that I am not a health expert or a mulberry expert. Remember to always be cautious when eating new foods and read my site disclaimer. That said, here is what I’ve found about the health benefits of mulberry leaf tea.
According to healthbenefittimes.com, mulberry leaves have twenty-five times more calcium than milk and more iron than spinach. They are also high in zinc, fiber, beta-carotene, and ascorbic acid.
Mulberry leaves are anti-inflammatory and contain antioxidants. They can lower blood cholesterol and blood glucose levels, making them particularly beneficial to type-2 diabetics for controlling blood sugar.
6. Mulberry leaves make excellent livestock fodder
In addition to being nutritious food for humans, mulberry makes excellent livestock and poultry fodder. Young mulberry shrubs are appropriate forage material for both ruminant and monogastric animals. This is due to its high protein content, low fiber content, easily digestible nutrients, and palatability.
Coppicing mulberry plants near the animals to be fed provides fresh fodder at animal grazing height. A mulberry tree growing over your chicken yard will shade and feed your birds. Cut down young leaves and drop them into the pen periodically for the birds to scratch and peck. Chickens will gobble up any berries that fall in their pen as well.
7. Mulberry leaves build soil
Leaves from any tree that fall to the ground add carbon and nutrients back to the soil. What’s special about mulberry trees is that they generate large amounts of biomass.
In temperate climates, each autumn the mulberry tree sheds its abundant leaves. If left in place, these nutrient-rich leaves will mulch and decompose, building soil organic matter and improving the soil, all with no work put in by you.
8. Mulberry is a good coppice tree
Because of their fast growth rate, mulberries make good coppice plants. Cutting the mulberry bush to the ground stimulates vigorous sprout growth. This growth can be used the following year for a number of uses. Some of these uses include garden stakes, wood crafting material, and medium-grade firewood.
Fresh green growth from coppiced trees can be harvested and used to make compost tea to feed plants directly or amend garden beds.
9. Mulberry protects other crops
Mulberry trees produce abundant amounts of fruit, so much that even though they’re loved by birds, there’s usually enough to go around for both birds and people.
Birds enjoy mulberry fruit so much that it distracts them from other fruit crops in the area. Plant a mulberry tree if you have other fruit trees that birds love but never get a harvest yourself without netting the tree. You might find that the birds leave your cherries alone in favor of mulberries.
10. Mulberries make an excellent upper canopy
Mulberries can be a top canopy in a food forest. Like many tall nut trees, mulberry fruits fall to the ground when ripe, so there’s no need to use a ladder to obtain a harvest. Simply gather the fruits from the ground when they fall. For a cleaner harvest, you can lay down a tarp, give the tree a shake, and the ripe fruits will come down onto the tarp for easy and clean collection.
With improved soil beneath the mulberry tree from its leaf litter mulch, many plants grow well here.
Shade-tolerant dwarf fruit trees such as pear or pawpaw will grow under the canopy or to the shady side of the mulberry. Plant sun-loving fruit trees such as apples and figs on the sunny side, just outside the canopy.
5 Cautions for Growing Mulberry Trees
Here are five reasons not to grow mulberries that you may hear from others. In my opinion, none of these are enough not to grow mulberries, except maybe number four, if you live in an area with native red mulberry trees. Each of these problems has an easy solution, but it’s still important to be aware of these potential issues before growing mulberry trees.
1. Mulberries are mildly poisonous
Unripe fruits and white sap (latex) from any part of the plant including the leaves are described as mildly toxic to humans, causing upset stomach, hallucinations, and skin irritation.
I have only seen this caution in regard to Morus rubra and Morus alba, although I can’t confirm that other species aren’t also toxic in the same way.
This problem is easy to avoid by not eating unripe mulberry fruit (which probably doesn’t taste good anyway) and cooking the leaves before eating. Also, avoid touching the sap with your bare hands as it may irritate the skin.
2. Mulberries cause allergies
Mulberry trees are heavy pollen producers that have been blamed for severe allergy and hayfever reactions. As a result, mulberry trees have even been banned in some locations, most notably, parts of Arizona.
The good news is, that it’s the male trees that produce pollen. Female mulberry trees are the fruit producers, and they set fruit even without pollination. Unpollinated flowers produce seedless fruits.
Some varieties of mulberry are monoecious, meaning they have both male and female flowers on the same plant. These varieties produce less pollen than the dioecious male mulberries. However, if you or a family member suffers from seasonal allergies, be cautious about planting mulberries close to your home.
3. Mulberries stain sidewalks, driveways, and other surfaces
Dark-colored mulberries can stain sidewalks and driveways, as well as fingers and faces. To avoid staining, plant mulberries away from hardscape surfaces. If you do get some berry stains, rain typically cleans most stains off concrete and stone.
A good scrub with soap and warm water will remove red stains from the skin. Another trick is to rub the juice from a white mulberry on your hands to remove the red mulberry stains from your skin.
But if you’re still concerned about staining, choose a white fruiting variety. Not all white mulberry varieties bear white fruit, but there are many cultivars that do and these will not cause stains.
4. Mulberries are invasive
When people call mulberries invasive they mean one of two things. They might be referring to white mulberry naturalizing and hybridizing with native red mulberry, endangering the native population. This is a concern and has been since white mulberry was brought over from Asia for the silk industry.
To avoid contributing to the problem, pull up any seedlings that grow from your mulberry tree, particularly in areas with native mulberries. Better yet, if you live in an area with native mulberries, then lucky you. Just grow your own locally native varieties.
5. Mulberries have invasive roots
The other thing people may be referring to when they call mulberry invasive is its roots. Mulberry roots can be aggressive, lifting sidewalks and damaging buried utility lines and drains. To avoid this, don’t plant a mulberry close to a building, sidewalk, buried utility line, or septic tank and you’ll be fine.
Where to Get a Mulberry Tree
If you want to plant your own mulberry tree, you have several options for where to get your hands on one. If you can find a tree growing in the wild or in a neighbor’s yard, then take a cutting (with permission of course). Like many trees and shrubs, mulberries can be propagated from hardwood cuttings.
If you can’t find a mature tree to take a cutting from, or if you want a different variety than what you can find, then a local nursery is your best option. By buying locally, you avoid the environmental and monetary costs of shipping. But more importantly, you’re more likely to get a tree that is suited to your local growing conditions.
Your next best option is to purchase from a reputable online nursery, such as One Green World, Nature Hills (affiliate link) or Stark Bros. Mulberry trees, and fruit trees in general are popular in recent years, and many nurseries are often sold out. It may be necessary to wait until fall or winter to order plants for the following spring.
Avoid purchasing plants from big box stores, as they often aren’t selected for local suitability, but what sells quickly.
I’ve gone over the four main mulberry species, Morus rubra, M. alba, M. nigra, and M. macroura, as well as a less common, cold hardy Korean mulberry, M. latifolia. I’ve also tried to suss out some of the confusion over mulberry species and how they are labeled and sometimes mislabeled at nurseries.
Then I covered ten reasons to grow a mulberry tree in your backyard.
- Easy to grow
- Shade tree
- Edible fruits
- Edible young leaves
- Livestock fodder
- Build soil
- Coppice tree
- Protection plant
- Upper canopy tree
Finally, I discussed five cautions you’re likely to hear about mulberry trees and what to do about them.
- Mildly poisonous latex sap
- Males are heavy pollinators and can cause allergies
- Fruits can stain driveways, sidewalks, and skin
- White mulberry is invasive in some locations
- Mulberry roots can be invasive
I hope this article has informed and inspired you. If you don’t find the cautions too troublesome, then maybe you’ll go out and plant your own mulberry tree.
Interested in more featured plant articles to fill out your permaculture plant list? Check out my other featured Plants of the Month.
Want to grow a mulberry tree guild? Check out my article on designing fruit tree guilds to learn how.
One Green World https://onegreenworld.com/mysteries-of-the-mulberry-tree/