Mulberry is Open for Business

Many animals will visit our yard in the next couple weeks just to sample the delectable fare. Each June, the mulberry tree (Morus alba L.) produces abundant fruit. Early in the month, as the first fruits begin to swell, even before they ripen, some birds stop by for a sample. Each morning as the month progresses, a whole new set of fruit has moved from hard and green to hard and pink to ripe. For me, ripe means fleshy and an almost black berry. Technically, my tree is a white mulberry, an introduced species from Asia and not the red mulberry (Morus rubra) the native mulberry, though these two trees can hybridize, so…

We have a love hate relationship with this tree. We love how it fills our backyard with shade and how it serves as a bird magnet when the fruits        ripen. We hate the stained clothing that results from weeding the gardens under the tree as the berries litter the ground profusely. We hate not being able to sit under the shade of the tree for the berries dropping on our heads. We hate the stains on the deck umbrella and car left by the birds that have eaten mulberries. We keep the tree for the many visitors.

For years I watched this tree and note some interesting animal behavior. One would thing that a bird might sit and feast on this source of food. The plant produces so much fruit that most of it fall to the ground uneaten. Without any expense of energy, a bird could eat to its heart’s content. I noticed though that when a bird or squirrel visits they do not stay long. Yes, there is almost always something, a bird, a squirrel, or multiples of each, in the tree, but an unscientific survey of the birds noted that many eat only a berry or two before flying off. Most stay for just a few seconds. The most I have seen a bird eat is eight and that was an immature American robin. Of course when one thinks about the size of a single fruit, I can see where a bird’s crop will fill rapidly. The young robin sat without moving for almost a half hour after pigging out.

What is really happening? I wonder if the mulberry provides a high quality food or is more a filler like bread. It undoubtedly provides a lot of sugar.

Checking the nutritional value, I learned that the berry is 88% water and a human who eats a full cup (140 g) gets just 60 calories. The berries are 9.8% carbohydrates (mostly glucose and fructose), 1.7% fiber, 1.4% protein, and just 0.4% fat. Compared to blueberries, at 80 calories and containing 84% water, 14% carbohydrates, 2.2% fiber, 0.7% protein and 0.3% fat does lends a lot credibility to my hypothesis that mulberries do not provide a lot of needed nutrients to the consumer. As a reviewed a number of pictures for this blog, I also noticed that more often than not, the birds chose berries you or I would consider unripe–hard and just turning pink. I suspect that also means less water.

The birds most often seen in the tree are American robins, gray catbird, house finch, Eurasian starling, common grackle, and cedar waxwing, in that order. Also seen are Carolina chickadee, red-bellied woodpecker, northern flicker, downy woodpecker, and house sparrow so far this year. Every one of these species used the tree to feed young.

How did this tree come here from China and Japan? It was brought here for industrial purposes-silk production. Silk is a natural fiber produced by the silkworm moth (Bombyx mori L.). The larva feed exclusively on white mulberry leaves. When the larva pupates, it spins a fibrous cocoon. Some time back thousands of years ago, the Chinese learned to unravel the threads and weave them into silk fibers. Chinese legends place the development to about 3000 BC, though some physical evidence suggests it may have been as early as 7,000 BC. Once Europeans discovered silk, it became a huge commodity, hence the Silk Road from China to Europe.

In typically human fashion, people saw an opportunity to make lots of money if only they could learn how the Chinese made silk. For years people tried to steal the secret from China. About 500 AD, two monks (go figure) smuggled eggs out of china and into Byzantine and the European silk industry started.

Silk production came to the new world by 1623 when King James encouraged colonists to bring white mulberry and silkworms with them. Silk production did not take off in the Americas until late in the eighteen and early in the nineteen century. The hot spots included Connecticut, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Vermont. By 1900, one third of all the silk produced in the United States came from Philadelphia, Scranton and Allentown. The trees here are remnant of that industry which eventually collapsed during the depression.

I too have eaten mulberries from my tree. When I can reach some berries, I will pluck a few off to enjoy the sweet juicy flavor. It makes a mess though. Years ago, I made a fresh mulberry pie. I spread a tarp under the tree and then used a pole to shake and thump the branches. Mulberries rained down until I had several quarts. After a quick washing the berries went into the pie stems and all. The stems cook down to nothing with the heat. I do not do it very often as the process is messy and labor intensive, but a mulberry pie is tasty!

I learned from a fisherman that carp love mulberries and can be found anywhere a mulberry tree hangs over the water. Finding a mulberry tree is easy. Just drive down the road and look for the stain on the asphalt.

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2 thoughts on “Mulberry is Open for Business

  1. So glad to see your blog is back up again. I’ll have to catch up on back topics. But for now I too had a mulberry tree in my back yard when I lived in West Philly in the 80’s. The blue carpets were continually stained with purple spots and the birds loved it.

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