Mulberry Tree

Discover how a mix-up between black and white mulberry trees destroyed the fledging seventeenth-century English silk industry.

| November 2019

mulberry-tree
The black mulberry originates in Central Asia and is now often grown in gardens for its delicious fruit. Old trees can have very gnarled bark and branches that droop to the ground, where they may take root. Photo by The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Mulberry

Morus nigra and Morus alba

There are about twelve species of mulberries, all of which are deciduous flowering trees in the family Moraceae. This large family also includes tropical trees such as the breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) as well as the edible fig (Ficus carica) and its numerous relatives. Many of the mulberries grow in tropical regions of Africa and the temperate parts of Asia and North America, but two important species commonly grown in gardens today are the black mulberry, Morus nigra, which originates in Central Asia, and the white mulberry, Morus alba, from China, where it has been cultivated as an essential part of the silk industry (sericulture) for over four thousand years.

The white mulberry is a fast-growing, small to medium-sized tree with a sprawling crown and a rugged trunk. Its leaves can vary markedly in size and shape, from smooth to deeply lobed on one side only or both. The male and female flowers are usually found on separate trees, and the male catkins have one surprising accomplishment—they are noted for their rapid release of pollen. The stamens act like a catapult and fling pollen at approximately 560 kilometers (350 miles) per hour—over half the speed of sound, making it the fastest known movement yet observed in the plant kingdom. The fruits are like blackberries in shape and change in color from white when young to burgundy-red or purple when ripe. They are said to be toxic when immature and when ripe are bland in taste compared to the black mulberry.



mulberry-silkworm
The white and the black mulberry, both shown here, are often confused. The fruits of the black mulberry are a real delicacy, while the leaves of the white mulberry are the staple diet of the silk worm. Photo by The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

The black mulberry is a long-lived, stately tree. With age, the gnarled trunk often leans at an angle and has to be propped up to provide support. The spreading branches with heart-shaped leaves sometimes droop to the ground and bear the succulent dark purple, almost black, raspberry-like fruits with a unique, sub-acid taste that this tree is often grown for.






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