Mulberry Preamble

Old gnarled and twisted mulberry trees.

I have spent the better part of 3 years obsessed with mulberries and their possibilities. It all started with the concept of an everbearing mulberry, which can drop various amounts of mulberries (from a light rain to a canopy downpour) daily for 2-4 months. This journey started with ‘Hicks Everbearing,’ which was known to drop prolific amounts of mulberries for upwards of 4 months in the deep South, and soon transitioned into much, much more. 

I am not really a believer in silver bullets, but after much passion, obsession, discussion and study, I believe mulberries are one of the most versatile and adaptable trees on the planet. This is coming from someone who has devoted a decade of her life to the self-study and research of apples, one of the most adaptable fruits in the world that has strains growing from India to Russia, Alabama to Alaska, Bahamas to Beirut. In my own humble opinion, and facing much sacrilege from 10 years-ago-me, mulberries have a lot more to offer than apples alone, and should be implemented in most agricultural systems world-wide. 

White people have never been good at identifying mulberry species. The common ones found in the Eastern US are Morus rubra, our native ‘red mulberry;’ Morus alba, otherwise known as ‘white mulberry,’ a native to China which was brought over to the US in the 1600s and after; and a hybrid of the two species, rubra x alba, as they readily cross with one another in the wild. It is my current theory that many of the mainstream East Coast botanist of the late 19th/early 20th century tended to mix up M. rubra and M. alba with the hybrids. This can be seen in Liberty Hyde Bailey calling Hicks Everbearing a full Morus rubra, which most certainly is not the case seeing as how it contains smooth shiny leaves and multiple lobes (among other characteristics). It is theorized by A.J Bullard, one of the last remaining mulberry experts in this country hailing from Mt. Olive, NC, that all East Coast originating everbearings are rubra x alba hybrids. I tend to agree with this theory due to the rampant hybridization between asian cultivars and our native red that has been happening for 400 years here in the US. To hammer home this point, a study of isolated and endangered populations of Morus rubra in Canada revealed that 53% of these isolated stands were comprised of hybrids. That’s in Canada! No doubt, the further South you go into North America where the native rubra ranges expand, as do the silk prospecting regions, the number of hybrids will increase. Point being: I think the horticultural greats, guys like Andrew Jackson Downing and Liberty Hyde Bailey, were given hybrids as baselines for their botanical keys. Meaning, I think the large majority of mulberries we have in the US today are hybrids and very few are strictly Morus alba (which people term as invasive…even though they have been here as long as white people have). Also, if you do much research on certain cultivars, you’ll find a huge amount of copying what the person before them said. Not a whole lot of original American thoughts have occurred in the mulberry realm.

While everbearings and other fruiting mulberries are amazing when thinking about them for human and livestock fodder, there’s another aspect to mulberries that shouldn’t be overlooked: the leaves. Mulberry trees have been in cultivation for 4000+ years in Asia for the exclusive harvest of their leaves, which they use to feed silkworms. This is the oldest form of agroforestry in the world. Silkworms are monogastric wee beasties that are quite sensitive to what they eat. They have different needs throughout their different life stages and Asian cultures have selected certain mulberry genetics and combined these genetics with harvesting strategies to feed these silkworms exactly what they need to thrive and produce high quality silk. It’s all incredibly complicated, but silk is worth it. 

So worth it, that the US has been struck with a get-rich-quick scheme for silk TWICE in it’s infantile history. Once in the early 17th century when King James I tried to encourage silk production in the colonies, first using the abundant native red mulberry (M. rubra) and then mandating each landowner plant 6 mulberry trees a year for 7 years from M. alba stock sent over from England. Once tobacco was discovered to prosper in the Southern soils and the crown and colonists got a hankering for nicotine, the cultivation and excitement of mulberries faded out. To this day, in and around Williamsburg, some of these old 17th century cultivated silk mulberry trees (M. alba) still exist. Two centuries later, the silk craze struck again- this time having Americans consumed with the planting of “Morus multicaulis,” an Asian strain of white mulberry (M. alba) known for its silkworm rearing (Multicaulis= many stems, a hat-tip to the pruning used in the cultivation of mulberry leaves). Conventions were held all across the East Coast with arousal and promises of employment and riches, the first in Baltimore in 1822 . Gardens, fields and highly productive farmland were planted to the gold-producing tree with hopes of getting filthy rich. New Jersey had the most M. multicaulis cultivation, followed by Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and further South.  For a variety of reasons, all of this prospecting came crashing down in 1841, with millions of trees in the Mid-Atlantic and beyond remaining on the landscape- flowering, fruiting and hybridizing more than ever with our native populations (and creating a large hive of everbearing genetics). These trees, comprised of Asian genetics meant to feed silkworms, have leaf protein contents equal to or higher than alfalfa, only they are more digestible by livestock and more nutrient rich due to their roots plunging deep into the soil. These defunct orchards could have helped to feed livestock (pigs, chickens, cattle, goats, sheep) without a problem, yet this alternative to feeding silkworms was never acted upon. To this day, Asian mulberry trees from the 17th and 19th centuries still sleep in the landscape, their lower limbs browsed by deer (who know what’s up). 

It is my goal to assemble the genetics necessary to provide both humans and livestock with nutrient rich, climatically adaptable perennial fodder (fruit and leaves). This includes everbearings and silk cultivars which are cold hardy,  resistant to popcorn disease, able to flourish in the intense heat and humidity of Southeast, able to be grown without chemicals, and the like. Myself and others are hunting our surroundings and the world* for the old, the impressive and the everbearing to offer a diversity of mulberry options for farmers and fruit enthusiasts alike. My mulberry catalog is launching this coming week on HogTree.com (which is currently down for maintenance) and will include a smattering of the above.

*Next year (2020), fellow NAFEX (North American Fruit Explorers) board member Taylor Malone and I will be traveling to China to observe a few mulberry cultivation systems that could potentially benefit fruit and livestock fodder production in the US. We have obtained clearance from the USDA to import 5 cultivars per year from Asia, and will be importing genetics for high quality fodder and fruit. We plan on making this trip part of #thefruitexplorers and will soon be launching a Patreon to help support us in our collection and dissemination of  knowledge for the cultivation of mulberry and other fruits for home and farm (agroforestry, silvopasture, grazing, and livestock-in-orcharad settings). We’re also looking for in-kind help. If you write grants and think you can help us in this multi-year endeavor, we’d love to talk. You can write us at thefruitexplorers@gmail.com.

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