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365 Urban Species. #311: White Mulberry


Photo by urbpan. This mulberry tree, growing in the parking lot of the Brookline Water and Sewer Division, had its entire top cut off, and has produced new, bush-like foliage.

Urban species #311: White mulberry Morus alba

When I was teaching myself to identify all the weeds and trees that were growing in my Brighton, Massachusetts yard, years ago, I nearly drove myself crazy with this one. My tree field guide was organized by leaf shape--whether the leaf was toothed around its margin, or lobed, or simple, round or long. This one tree had leaves that were simple (more or less round) or were mitten-shaped (asymmetrically lobed) or were sort of oak leaf like (symmetrically lobed all around); I didn't know where to begin. This was one of the many times that a field guide to urban species would have been helpful. As it turned out, that field guide concentrated on native species anyway, so trees from Eurasia were either not covered or marginalized, even though in North American cities they make up a huge percentage of the tree population. When, in summer, the tree produced copious amounts of fruit, drupes shaped like blackberries, it became clear what the tree was.

White mulberry is exceedingly common in many cities. It was introduced from east Asianin order to feed silkworms, for a silk industry that never got off the ground. Once it was established, birds were happy to gobble up the fruit and spread the seeds all over the New World. The berries are edible for humans, though you may have to sample the fruit of many individuals before you find some that aren't basically flavorless. The color of the fruit also varies from tree to tree. Some individuals produce fruit that is white, and never darkens to a more enticing color. Others bear fruit that is white, red, and nearly black, all at the same time. Red mulberry (M. rubra) is native to the northeast of North America, and may account for some of the better-tasting urban mulberries. All species of mulberry hybridize readily, and produce fertile offspring, so it may be difficult to ascertain whether a given tree is a pure white or some kind of hybrid.

White mulberry is an uncommonly hardy tree, enjoying many urban locations. Frequently it grows from bird droppings along a fence line or in a sidewalk crack. Like Ailanthus, it appears to be a simple weed at first, and then quickly develops in to a difficult-to-remove tree. It may develop as a shrub, or as a small, apple-sized tree. Many kinds of butterfly and moth larvae will fed on mulberry leaves, and they are a favorite staple of hobbyists raising silkworms and other caterpillars.





Mulberry in fall colors, at the Longwood trolley stop in Brookline.


Summer mulberry leaves at the shore of Leverett pond.

I would appreciate it if a reader would post a photo of the berries in the comments--can you believe that I didn't get a picture of mulberry fruit this year?

Comments

( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
heavenscalyx
Nov. 8th, 2006 03:41 pm (UTC)
Alas, my father has cut down the white mulberry in their yard in Delaware. I spent weeks trying to identify the darn thing when I was a teenager -- we had two more recognizable red mulberries further down the yard, but I just couldn't wrap my head around a white mulberry tree! The red mulberries were tart and enormous, while the white mulberry produced a small, sweet berry. It was hard to tell when the white berries were ripe -- there was a just-detectable darkening around the tips of the individual berry segments.
agelena
Nov. 8th, 2006 04:13 pm (UTC)
I used to live in a pastel pink house in Ennis, Texas. A mulberry tree gree in the side yard, and that wall of the house was always an interesting pink-streaked-with-purple from bird droppings. It was rather interesting, if you could get past what it actually was.
(Anonymous)
Jan. 28th, 2011 12:12 am (UTC)
mulberry trees
Nice pictures! where can i find them in nyc.
interfecta
Nov. 8th, 2006 04:27 pm (UTC)
The multiple leaf shape trap
I had a similar problem, once upon a time, with sassafras. I quickly learned to identify the trees by their variety of leaf shapes :)

I have a perverse attachment to urban mulberries. They're often unattractive, especially when abused, litter sidewalks (and make me leave stains on people's expensive carpeting) and attract birds that further clog the sidewalks with droppings. I love them anyway -- it's nice to see a seemingly invincible plant that can feed birds, squirrels, and humans, and grow nearly everywhere. My husband, a former Wicca practitioner, tells me they're also associated with prosperity... based on their talent for showing up where least expected, I'd associate them with the trickle-down theory :)

Nice photos too.
(Anonymous)
Nov. 8th, 2006 04:52 pm (UTC)
Re: The multiple leaf shape trap
Hi. Here is a picture of the mulberry berry, as you requested. The picture and I are from The Silkworm Shop at www.silkwormshop.com. Come on by. We sell silkworms which animals like bearded dragons love. I didn't see a way to post a photo, so the link is http://www.silkwormshop.com/shop_mulberry.html (http://www.silkwormshop.com/shop_mulberry.html)

By the way, wanted to mention that the mulberry is the ONLY thing that the Silkworm will feed on. The caterpillar will eat mulberry fresh, or it is available in powder form with agar mixed in. So, without good old mulberry, the silk industry would collapse.

Thank you so much for your website. Mulberry rules! Added a link from The Silkworm Shop to you.
Mark
urbpan
Nov. 8th, 2006 07:24 pm (UTC)
Re: The multiple leaf shape trap
Hi Mark (sorry about the triple post--I had some html trouble of my own).

Here'e the picture from your website:


Good to emphasize that Mulberry is an obligate host for silkworms!
phlogiston_5
Nov. 8th, 2006 05:14 pm (UTC)
A couple more mulberry fruit pictures. These were taken at the Walkill NRA in nothern NJ this summer, around July.

1

1
urbpan
Nov. 8th, 2006 07:17 pm (UTC)
Wonderful! Those are perfect. :)
phlogiston_5
Nov. 8th, 2006 11:13 pm (UTC)
No problemo.

Regretfully, most of my pictures are not from truly urban settings. However, since NJ is on the coast, most of the species found throughout the state (at least the introduced ones) are common in urban environments.
(Anonymous)
Jan. 21st, 2010 11:12 pm (UTC)
Dwarf Black Mulberry plants
Last year I had the pleasure of trying a Mulberry Jam, I live in the West Indies and I will love to plant some trees, do you know of
any store where the seeds can be purchased . I anxiously await your
reply, many thanks
psongster
Nov. 8th, 2006 07:28 pm (UTC)
Are there mulberries other than the white and the red?

Our house (in MA) came equipped with a huge mulberry tree -- much taller than the house, maybe 70 or 80 feet. The leaf forms match your photos, and the fruit look similar to the ones in the photos above, though a greater percentage of them are purple-black when they are at their peak of sweetness. But this is no apple-sized tree.

And it produces thousands of babies each year ...
urbpan
Nov. 8th, 2006 08:11 pm (UTC)
Sounds to me like a red mulberry.
psongster
Nov. 8th, 2006 10:10 pm (UTC)
Or at least (given the comment below) a hybrid with lots of red genes :-).
nutmeg
Nov. 8th, 2006 09:48 pm (UTC)
The mulberry hybridization example you gave is a really good example of another way alien plants impact native plants. Red mulberry will likely be impossible to find soon as White mulberry hybridizes with it and essentially crosses back to white mulberry repeatedly making the offspring indistinguishable.

The same is happening with the Native celastrus hybridizing with Oriental Bittersweet in the Northeast. I have good papers about both.
ndozo
Nov. 9th, 2006 01:55 am (UTC)
I have always heard that unripe mulberries are a little hallucinogenic. And some people claim that the title of the kids' book, To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was an oblique reference to that fact.
mysticchyna
Nov. 11th, 2006 06:38 pm (UTC)
ah, yes, i pick mulberries when i can. i actually like them lots.
buboniclou
Nov. 9th, 2007 03:06 am (UTC)
Eeheeheeeee ah the mitten-or-oak-or-regular-leaf quandary...that's how I learned how to recognize 'em!
theeidolon
May. 9th, 2011 03:29 pm (UTC)
Hi, Can you tell me exactly where by the Water Sewarge or the Longwood Trolley stop I can find these mulberry tree? Thanks
urbpan
May. 9th, 2011 04:56 pm (UTC)
The one at the water department is along the fenceline of the parking lot just opposite the Dutch House. I don't remember where the one by the Longwood stop is, sorry.
( 19 comments — Leave a comment )

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