Great Fruit Trees for the Deep South, Part. III: The Mulberry

http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/deep-south-mulberry-tree-zbcz1304zgoo.aspx

planting a mulberry treeI remember the first time I saw a mulberry tree. Growing up in South Florida, we were used to oranges, grapefruit, mangos and avocadoes. But… a blackberry that grew on a tree? Wild!

I was 10 years old. My little brother Brian and I were visiting our friends Rachel and Miles, who were eight and seven. Rachel took us down a little alley behind her house to show us the tree. We picked fruit and purpled our fingers and lips… totally amazed by the delicious abundance.

Rachel is now my wife; and though we no longer live in South Florida, we did take a trip back a few years ago and asked Rachel’s mom if the tree was still at the end of the alley. Sadly, it had been removed – but a far-sighted neighbor had taken cuttings before its demise and planted them across the street in an empty lot. We took our children for a walk and found the trees in full fruit. All of us came home purple and happy, our baskets loaded with berries.

In my yard in North Central Florida, I’ve planted a half-dozen mulberry trees and will soon plant more.

The mulberry tree has been praised and demonized… overlooked… fed to silk worms… discovered by hungry travelers… and planted by the Founding Fathers. It grows across most of the United States and is a consistent producer of delicious berries. The range is actually astounding, when you consider that mulberries live and fruit in states with blizzards and ice… and in Miami… where people suntan in February.

I’m always amazed when people pick on mulberries as “messy.” That’s like saying “you know, the Mississippi is a great river… what a shame it’s so damp!”

As I say regularly… that’s not mess! THAT’S FOOD!

Sure, songbirds sometimes eat the berries and then recreate Pollack masterpieces across the hood of your Honda… but that’s a small price to pay for mulberry pie… dried mulberries… mulberry brandy… mulberry cobbler… and smiling children with purple fingers.

I read – with horror – that some landscape-minded plant breeders have bred fruitless varieties. FRUITLESS! If I were them, I would watch the sky for lightning bolts. God makes one of the most productive and delicious fruits known to man… and you breed the fruit off it?

Okay – I’m done ranting. Let’s talk about growing these things.

Mulberries are a relative of the fig, and like figs, will usually start easily from cuttings. Just don’t take cuttings when the trees are in fruit or getting ready to fruit in the spring. The take rate is poor, in my experience, and you’ll probably do better later on.

Something that’s really encouraging about this tree is that it has a juvenile period of almost zero. I’ve had tiny trees produce fruits. And when mulberries are young, they grow like weeds. They also respond very well to pruning. I’m trying different methods of tree shaping to keep the berries within reach for ease of picking. Untended mulberry trees can get tall quickly.

As for varieties, that’s where things get complicated. Morus alba, Morus rubra and Morus nigra all look quite similar and hybridize readily, producing fertile offspring. In fact, Morus alba, the “white mulberry,” has been classified as invasive in some states due to its ability to hybridize with the native red mulberry (Morus rubra), threatening the species. The white mulberry is the famous mulberry of the Oriental silk industry. Though it’s called “white,” it has fruit that range in color from purple to pink to white. Their flavor is apparently not as delicious as the “red” or “black” mulberry species (though I admit I haven’t tried them, so I can’t say personally.)

Yesterday, I found a white-fruited mulberry variety in the yard of a relative’s just-purchased home. As soon as it’s done fruiting, I’m taking cuttings for my collection.

There are varieties of mulberries known as “ever-bearing,” since they bear sporadic crops throughout the warmer months, rather than having one gigantic crop all at once in the spring.

One of my favorite varieties – for purely aesthetic reasons – is the Pakistan “long mulberry,” a tree that bears graceful 2-3” long fruit. Though my long mulberry is only 3’ high, it’s already bearing a few fruit.

Another use for mulberries that is now being rediscovered is its excellence as animal feed. Chickens and pigs will live happily on the abundant dropped fruit – and goats are inordinately fond of the tree’s leaves. I’ve planted a few trees inside my chicken run. That way, the fruit I miss are converted into eggs for the table. No waste!

If you have space… and you’d like fruit within a year… and you want happy children… grow a mulberry. Right now. Go get one – you’ll love it.

For survival plant profiles, ideas on growing tons of food, and madcap gardening inspiration, visit David’s daily blog at www.floridasurvivalgardening.com