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To be or not to be a mulberry tree

April 27, 2018
By JOYCE COMINGORE - Garden Club of Cape Coral , Cape Coral Daily Breeze


My son-in-law has a birthday Sunday. He wanted a mulberry tree, so I purchased a red mulberry tree.

All I knew about mulberries was, when as a child I sang the nursery rhyme, "Here we go 'round the mulberry bush" What is the difference between a mulberry bush and a mulberry tree? They start out as a bush but become a tree. Shaping their form when first planting saves time and result. Unless you grew up in or near the state of Texas, you've most likely never seen a mulberry bush.

For most parts of the eastern United States, especially the Ohio Valley, the mulberry is not a bush. A tree can grow to 70 feet tall and is usually wider than they are tall. With dense spreading crowns, they need plenty of space to grow. However, they will grow great in a tub. There are several species called "Mulberry Trees." One is native to North America, the Morus rubra, of the Moraceae family, the others hail from various spots in Eurasia.

The three species cultivated are the red Morus rubra, native to the eastern half of North America,, which hybridizes so easily with M alba, it is beginning to lose its true origin. Now, the white Morus alba is native to China, and is the famous silk-worm feeding mulberry tree, (there are no silk-worms in America. It was tried as a business, but failed). Its berries can be sweeter and blander than the red and black species. It has been hybridized to not form berries. The Morus nigra, native to the Persian Gulf and west of that, was introduced to Southern Europe. It is listed as native to Germany, England or Spain.

The mulberry I found is a red mulberry that eventually turns to black. Mulberries look like a small elongated blackberry. They are so fragile, they rarely make it to the grocery store or market for sale, so you need a tree for fresh fruit. They excel as jellies or jams and fillings in a pie. Be aware these berries will stain your carpet, car windows and roof. It's best not to plant them where their purple mush will be trampled by offspring, pets or visitors. I have been assured by friends and knowing horticulturists that mulberry trees will grow here, even though the USDA growing zones are listed as 4 to 9. We are definitely a zone 10 and above.

With their shallow, aggressively spreading root systems, remember to plant them away from sidewalks, driveways and buildings. Their large leaves lend a cooling atmosphere in the summer, making them excellent shade trees, and are deciduous, fast growing, and the trees can live more than 100 years. They need full sun and lots of space, are wind-resistant and somewhat drought-resistant, but do supplemental watering when the weather becomes too dry. They prefer a dry, well-drained soil.

Generally, they need little fertilization, but an annual application of a balanced fertilizer, like 10/10/10 NPK helps. Unlike many trees, mulberry leaves are polymorphic, meaning a tree will usually have three different shapes of leaves.

After training them to a sturdy frame, they need little pruning. Just remove dead or overcrowded wood. It is not recommended to prune it too heavily because they bleed at their cuts. Cuts of more than two inches in diameter generally do not heal and should be avoided. Best to prune in its dormant season.

If trying to propagate, spring budding and grafting are best. By seed, they take about 10 years to bear and set seed. Seed can be sown immediately after being extracted from the fruit. Hard wood, softwood and root cuttings are suitable propagating methods if done in mid-summer and by using rootone. Being dioecious or monoecious, sometimes, they can change their sex. Being wind pollinated, some can set fruit without pollination. In California, mulberries set fruit without pollination. Grafting between white and black mulberries is incompatible.

Generally free of pests and diseases, mulberries can be bothered by cankers and dieback. There is a problem called "popcorn disease." The fruits swell to resemble popped corn. Since the disease carries on from year to year, it is necessary to collect and burn infected fruit. The ripe fruit is attractive to birds, but there is usually enough fruit for everyone.

Botanically, the fruit is not a berry.

Red and white fruits are ready for harvest in late spring; and the black mulberries ripen in summer to late summer. White mulberries can be harvested by spreading a sheet underneath and shaking the tree limbs. Black mulberries are more difficult. Because they are so fragile, squeezing them to pull them cause them to collapse, staining hands and clothing. Unwashed berries will keep refrigerated for several days in a covered container.

I really wish I had researched mulberry trees before I invested in this gift. I really prefer the elderberry bushes. (Ahhh - shades of "Arsenic and Old Lace," elderberry wine is great if it has no additives). Their only fault is they cannot take drought. You also need another bush to provide cross pollination. Let them grow wild for the first two years. No picking, no pruning. Try to beat the birds when they ripen. But, this gift is not for me and it satisfies another's desire.

I guess, all around the mulberry bush - gives you plenty to do.

Here's a tree you can thank for our good and healthy living.

Joyce Comingore is a Master Gardener, hibiscus enthusiast and member of the Garden Club of Cape Coral.



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