Mulberry has been an important tree crop for a very long time and used as a host plant for silk worms of the silk industry. The Asian species of mulberry was imported to our continent for that reason centuries ago. Way back then, the Asian Morus alba began hybridizing with our region's M. rubra and continues to do so today. Because of how genetically diverse the Morus genus is, how readily they hybridize, and our cultures’ propensity to cut down old trees without a blink of an eye (particularly if it’s a ‘messy’ tree), it’s no longer common to find straight species of our native Morus in North America.
Despite not being native, M. alba and M. rubra hybrids pop up in almost every yard, field, and woodland edge and are really a stellar tree crop. First of all, they clearly want to grow! Their consistent, annual crop of massive amounts of sweet, juicy fruit beginning in early June is always so bountiful. Every year I sample all the mulberry tree fruits I can find, making mental notes of my favorites while gorging and collecting a hefty amount to freeze. My kid loves this task. He just keeps asking for “More, More, More!”, More Morus, Momma! Despite the abundance of mulberries, we have yet to get sick from overindulging.
My little ‘mul-baby’
Tasting in moderation is a difficult task, not only because mulberry fruits are wonderful and bountiful. Because of the wide genetic diversity of Morus, each tree tastes different. Some fruits have more M.rubra qualities with dark red or purple berries, giving a flavor that is both sweet and complex. Other trees have white fruits more akin to the M. alba species. These just taste sickeningly sweet in my opinion- too sweet to eat.
As any backyard homesteader with a volunteer mulberry growing in their garden bed knows, the roots are stubborn and the trees are incredibly hardy. You can hack them back annually and sure enough, they will return the following year. But the ability to coppice this tree can be used to one’s advantage, particularly if cultivating Morus for the leaves. Mulberry leaves are edible, and not just for the silkworm!
The leaves of mulberry are high in protein and edible for humans and for livestock. Regarding human consumption, they are most palatable when young, or when the newest, smallest leaves have emerged from the tree, usually early spring. This rule of thumb can be used for just about all of the species of trees with edible leaves (yes, there are trees we can use for salads!)*.
*One may need to expect and embrace differences when introduced to things we are not accustomed to...
A newly-planted silvopasture. Can you spot the trees? Courtesy Rising Locust Farm
Regarding livestock, this is a valuable tree crop, providing nutrients to sheep, cattle, pigs, and chickens. The shade of the tree gives the animals shelter from sweltering summer sun while providing all the other multitude of ecosystem services trees provide. Because mulberry is hardy, they can withstand browsing from grazing animals and will re-sprout if eaten to the ground. Trees in pasture can be pruned to be kept at browsing height and branches can be harvested like hay to store for winter fodder. In addition to the leaves, livestock surely loves the fruits (and any bugs attracted to the fruits!) as they begin to drop in June.
Morus is being cultivated elsewhere for the purpose of delectable leaf quality and high protein content for human consumption. Other parts of the world truly value this tree crop for their consistent, massive abundance of fruit. I believe it’s high time we get on board.
For more edible inspiration regarding Mulberry, check out the Propaganda by the Seed podcast and their interview with Eliza Greenman. The link is listed below.
Any Morus tree I see, I taste the leaves (this time of year is a bit too late for leaf tasting- they're too rugged now to be tasy). I haven’t found many that I consider to be palatable (there’s a fine line between edible and delectable), but earlier in the Spring I found one that made me go back for seconds, thirds, and I even took a fourth nibble on a large leaf to see how they taste at maturity. This individual tree, likely placed by the birds, is part of what people would call a ‘waste place’- the edge between two housing developments. Asian honeysuckle and garlic mustard dominate the understory. But, Nature, curiosity, individuality abounds. Even in the forgotten places. Characteristics of individual plants vary, especially among such a genetically diverse genus like Morus. It is this discovery of diversity which keeps me fascinated, forever observing.
Mulberries with Eliza Greenman and Taylor Malone. Propaganda by the Seed Podcast. https://edgewood-nursery.com/podcast/2020/6/11/june-11-2020-mulberries-w-eliza-greenman-amp-taylor-malone
Dhanyalakshmi, K.H. and Nataraja, K.N. Mulberry (Morus spp.) has the features to treat as a potential perennial model system. Plant Signal Behav. 2018; 13 (8). Jul 26, 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6149411/
Srivastava, S., Kapoor, R., Thathola, A., and Srivastava, R.P. Nutritional quality of leaves of some genotypes of mulberry (Morus alba). Int J Food Sci Nut. Aug-Sep 2006; 57 (5-6): 305-13. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17135021/