Here We Go 'Round the Mulberry Bush
History of Mulberries
Mulberries are native to China, but have been naturalized in Europe for many centuries. In fact, the first known love story featured the mulberry tree: the ancient Greek tale of Pyramus and Thisbe told of their tragic end beneath the mulberry tree, whose previously white berries were turned red by the gods in memory of the lovers.
The mulberry was probably first brought to America by silk entrepreneurs in the 1700’s who needed the fresh leaves to feed their silk worms. The silk industry never took hold, but the mulberry tree has lived on in meadows and yards ever since.
Though red and white mulberry varieties also are grown for their delicious fruit, black mulberries are the most suitable choice for backyard gardens and small orchards. This is because they are far shorter than the other varieties, topping out at 30 feet, making them easier to reach for harvesting. They are easily trainable with light pruning to maintain them at a smaller size and shape for harvesting. Black mulberries can be longer lived than other varieties, as well, have been known to yield fruit for hundreds of years. Most importantly, black mulberries have the best flavor of all.
Mulberries prefer the warm climate of their native land, but can be grown in zones 6 – 9. They are somewhat drought tolerant once established, however it should be watered occasionally in the dry season to prevent immature fruit drop. Select a planting site away from walkways: the ripe fruit will fall to the ground and is easily tracked into the house if planted next to your front porch! They will need deep well-drained soil, and do not like gravel or chalky areas. With their sturdy branches and large size, they make excellent windscreens.
Ripe mulberries look like a loganberry or a long blackberry. They are soft and sweet, with a bit of tartness. You can recognize a mulberry tree whose fruits are ripe because of the mess on the ground around the tree!
To harvest your mulberries, lay a clean tarp or cloth (one on which you don’t mind purple stains) under your tree. Shake the branches and all the ripe fruit will fall to the ground. Collect the fruits, gently rinse them off, and use them right away. Fresh mulberries have a very short shelf life, so eat what you can and preserve the rest within a few days of harvesting.
Mulberries have a long harvest season, as they do not all ripen at the same time. You will need to harvest the fruits at least once a week through the season. Depending on your climate and variety of mulberry, your harvest should be ready in the summer through early fall.
Using the Harvest
Even a small young tree will produce a surprisingly large harvest. Happily, there are an equally abundant number of delicious ways to use your mulberries!
Traditional uses include mulberry jams and the famous mulberry wine. They freeze well, and also can be made into a delicious sorbet or ice cream. They are good for baking, and can be used in pies, cobblers, muffins, and cookies. They also can be made into syrup for pouring on your mulberry pancakes or mixing into Italian Cream Sodas.
Mulberries can also be substituted in nearly every blackberry recipe, but remember when doing so that they are not quite as sweet as blackberries, so you may need to add some extra sugar.
With almost limitless possibilities for the prolific harvest, why not plant a mulberry tree in your garden this year?