Mulberries, And The Winner Is . . .

I’ve been a fruit nut for a long time, and throughout that time have had a particular attraction to uncommon fruits (about which I wrote a book). Evidence of the latter began with  the planting of a mulberry tree in my front yard when I lived in Wisconsin. The plant and fruit seemed intriguing; little did I know, back then, that mulberry trees were growing all over the place. Right now, I could probably bump into a dozen wild trees within a quarter mile of here, or within a quarter mile of my old domicile in Wisconsin. Mulberry is the second most common “weed” tree in New York City.
Commonness is one reason that mulberry doesn’t “get no respect.” Also, fruits from run-of-the-mill trees are too cloying for most tastes. Still, the fruits are abundant, local, organic, and sustainably “grown,”

and some trees have better than run-of-the-mill flavor. The latter are available as named varieties.

Which is why I could be seen today bending flexible poles aver two small trees. Mulberry fruits are a favorite of birds; I needed to protect the fruits. The two trees — the varieties Oscar and Kokusu — allegedly bear delicious fruits. Taste of the fruit from these small trees will confirm whether or not they are worth keeping and growing into larger trees. If worth keeping, the trees, once large, will bear enough for the birds and humans.
My bird protection was easily erected. The ends of the flexible poles, in short sections held together by an inner elastic cord (from www.gardeners.com), like tent poles, went into foot-long pieces of PVC pipe that I pounded into the ground. Clothespins hold bird-netting in place on the poles and metal staples pinned the netting to the ground.
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‘Illinois Everbearing’ fruit
Three species of mulberry are commonly eaten: white mulberry, Morus alba; red mulberry, M. rubra; and black mulberry, M. nigra. (Fruit color has nothing to do with species names; many white mulberry trees bear black fruits.) In the eastern part of the U.S., we find our native red mulberry as well as white mulberry, introduced from Asia in the early 19th century, as well as hybrids of the two. Black mulberry thrives best in Mediterranean-type climates.
Right next to my two little trees I have an older mulberry, the variety Illinois Everbearing, a natural hybrid of the white and red mulberry species that does indeed bear over many weeks. My Oscar tree is probably a variety of white mulberry. Kokuso is sometimes listed as its own species, M. latifolia. At any rate, all three varieties are supposed to be hardy and delicious.
‘Illinois Everbearing’tree
I can vouch for Illinois Everbearing because I’ve grown it for a number of years. Although hardy, branches often die back because they don’t realize, towards the end of summer, that it’s time to slow down growth and toughen up for winter. I make it slow down as summer wanes by letting grass and weeds grow high at its feet, sucking up excess moisture and nutrients.
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The best-tasting of the mulberries, I’d even stick my neck out so far as to say perhaps the best-tasting of all fruits(!), is the black mulberry species. The berries aren’t particularly big but they pack enough flavor that they could be the size of an orange. Their flavor has a nice balance of sweetness and tartness along with some  . . . je ne sais quoi. Mulberryness?
Problem is that black mulberry is not hardy here. I’ve grown it in a pot, but a potted plant has only a limited amount of stems on which to hang fruits so yields are very low. I planted one right in the ground in the greenhouse a few years ago, planning to espalier it as directed in my book, The Pruning Book: “To train a

M. nigra in greenhouse, prior to its demise

mulberry to a tidy form, develop a main set of limbs, then prune branches growing off these limbs to six leaves in July to make short, fruiting spurs.” Not so! I garnered that pruning information from a British book, and it’s evidently is another gardening Britishism that doesn’t work on this side of the pond, probably due to differences in daylength and/or summer temperatures. My tree has done nothing but grow and grow, with little fruit on the abundant, lanky stems.

This week I ripped the black mulberry out of the greenhouse and planted, in its stead, a fig to accompany the three other in-ground figs there. 
A few weeks ago, before the black mulberry awoke from its winter slumber, I cut off a branch and grafted it onto a similarly sized branch of the Illinois

Morus nigra fruits

Everbearing tree. Black mulberry isn’t supposed to be cold-hardy outdoors here, but who knows? It’s a very long shot. As I said, I can’t believe everything I read, even if I wrote it. This time I hope that all of us are wrong.

32 Comments

  1. Anonymous
    Posted June 28, 2013 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    “If worth keeping, the trees, once large, will bear enough for the birds and humans.”

    That’s sort of the concept that I am shooting for on my property with all my fruit bearing plants. The expense, hassle, and appearance of all the netting that would be required to preserve all of my harvest for my family just doesn’t seem worth it. Doesn’t it make more sense to just plant twice or even more of what I think I want so that the birds can get theirs and my family can get ours? I’ve got plenty of space, so that’s the concept I am attempting as I get started. (I’m on year 2 so at this point the birds are getting far more than I am from my still small plants.)

    I just wonder if over time my abundant harvest will attract more and more birds to the point that the consumption will always meet the harvest. But netting is just a killer for me — what a maddening, unattractive, expensive hassle. What are your thoughts and experiences on netting and sharing the harvest?

    • Posted June 28, 2013 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

      I think whether or not giving the birds some free eats satisfies them or leads to more birds depends on the kinds of fruits available. The only fruits that I net are my strawberries and blueberries. Birds are especially fond of blueberries — but so am I.

  2. Posted June 28, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    We have wild mulberries on our farm and although I rarely eat them the grandchildren and birds hit the tree regularly. We leave them because the great thing about them is that the chickens love them and as long as there are mulberries the birds stay away from my strawberries. We do have to remain vigilant about cutting/weeding them out of the flower beds and gardens though.

    • Posted June 28, 2013 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

      Yeh, mulberry seedlings pop up everywhere here, from wild plants and from my own plants.

  3. Posted June 28, 2013 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Hi have a young Grafted Illinois everbearing that really sprouted this its second year. My neigbourhood is pestered though with wild mulberry. I would like to know if you Morus Nigra graft survives!

  4. Anonymous
    Posted June 30, 2013 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Lee,

    We’ve got Morus rubrus and Illinois Everbearing growing. Illinois wins hands down. I’d love to propagate it but I’m not sure how. Suggestions would be appreciated.

    Mike

    • Posted June 30, 2013 at 10:14 am | Permalink

      Wild mulberry seedlings come up all over the place here. It’s easy to graft dormant scions of Illinois Everbearing onto these seedlings in early spring, just as buds on the seedlings are swelling, using a simple whip graft. You can dig up seedlings for grafting or just graft them in place, if you want a tree there.

    • Anonymous
      Posted July 1, 2013 at 4:32 am | Permalink

      No wild seedlings here but I think I’ll graft some Illinois onto a number of our M. rubrus trees as an insurance policy against the Illinois dying.

      Can cuttings be taken from the Illinois?

      Mike

      • Matt
        Posted February 2, 2017 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

        Hi Mike, I have taken dormant cuttings and potted them with a baggy over them and placed on a seed mat with 100 percent success several times. Give it a shot!

    • Posted July 1, 2013 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      Where are you that you have no wild mulberries?
      Mulberries can be rooted from cuttings, with moderate difficulty.

    • Anonymous
      Posted July 2, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      125 km northeast of Toronto, Ontario. M. rubrus grows here but there’s very little of it in the wild. It’s on the endangered list – http://www.rom.on.ca/ontario/risk.php?doc_type=fact&id=39

  5. Posted July 11, 2013 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Hi,

    Have you tried ‘Javid Iranian Black Gem’ Black mulberry ? It is said to be more cold hardy than others.

    Thanks to your comments on fruit taste in your book, i’m planning to buy several mulberry trees next year, including a black mulberry from eastern Europe named Aalst. No sos hort on fruit size : http://web.archive.org/web/20090228072304/http://www.coplfr.org/articles33a38/article33pag40.html ! I’m in zone 7b, it should not be a big deal.

    • Posted July 11, 2013 at 11:50 am | Permalink

      Interesting, and tempting. I may have to give it a try in a very sheltered place, against the south wall of my brick house.

      My Noir de Spain black mulberry, in a pot, is ripening now.

      • Matt
        Posted February 2, 2017 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

        Lee, I was looking at that plant in the burnt ridge catalog minutes ago. Hence my google search that brought me here ( I do own your book though). How did it do? I live in zone 6 dedham mass. My house is white sided and i don’t want to plant against it. Maybe against the south of my old shed? Fruit worth it?

        • Posted February 8, 2017 at 7:38 am | Permalink

          The fruit is delicious and large — definitely worth it. It’s hardiness is questionable, though. Mine is in a large pot. I’m going to propagate a new plant from my plant, and risk planting that new plant outdoors. I’ll keep the old plant in the pot as a backup.

  6. Anonymous
    Posted May 18, 2014 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    As far as propagating mulberry trees including Illinois Everbearing and Morus Alba, I have had excellent success with cuttings from first year wood such that are obtained in the course of regular pruning, usually aided by a dip in rooting compound. Be patient! I have seen the cuttings leaf and even flower and fruit before a sufficient root system was formed, pulling the cuttings before they were ready and losing them that way.

  7. Posted May 18, 2014 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    Thanks. I’ll try rooting them and being patient.

  8. Amber C.
    Posted August 30, 2014 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Hi. This was a nice post. Thanks.

    We’re looking for a hardy, attractive black mulberry tree that will produce lots of berries and survive the cold winters of South Dakota. Any specific suggestions?

    • Posted August 30, 2014 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

      Illinois Everbearing is a tasty, hardy mulberry that would be my top recommendation. Geraldi Dwarf is also tasty, a small tree that is hardy to Zone 5 (minus 20 degrees F.). For more, see the mulberry chapter in my book “Uncommon Fruits for every Garden.”

  9. Martin Anderson
    Posted September 24, 2014 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    I grew up enjoying mulberries on my grandparents’ Illinois farm. I now live on 9 acres in SW Wisconsin (Darlington area) and would like my own tree. A web-site informs me that Illinois Everbearing should be planted in zones 5-8 and I am in zone 4. However, your commentary refers to Wisconsin, so I am hopeful I can still do this. Any advice? Also, when should I plant?

    • Posted September 24, 2014 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

      I’ll defer to Lee Reich, writing in his book “Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden” 🙂 in which Illinois Everbearing is stated to be hardy to minus 30°F, which is zone 4. One thing I have found with this variety is that it sometimes suffers some dieback on shoots that keep growing vigorously too late in the season. The way around this problem is to let grass or weeds grow up around the tree after midsummer to suck up excess water and nutrients and thus slow and toughen the mulberry’s growth. Kokuso is another hardy and tasty mulberry although not bearing over the long season like Illinois Everbearing.

  10. Jay Ingram
    Posted June 6, 2015 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    I love the everbearing Mulberry here in South Florida. I have 2 and they fruit the year around. I have them in 15 gallon containers currently. Each produce approximately 10 berries per day. Both are young 11/2 year old and 5 feet. I am currently attempting propagating cuttings in a 5 gallon container. Since May 31, cuttings are starting leaf, all leaves were removed and shoots have begun in branch locations. I’ve attempted 11 cuttongs and if 4 or 5 root I will be satisfied. LOVE those little fruits. They remind me of growing up in Indiana. Growth in 5 days is encouraging.

    • Posted June 11, 2015 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

      If I lived in Florida, I’d grow Morus nigra, among the most delicious of ALL fruits. Whitman Farms (www.whitmanfarms.com), among other places, has them. It’s not hardy here, so I grow it in a pot.

  11. Stefan Pettersson
    Posted August 17, 2015 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    Hi,
    I just discovered this forum I’d like to add a comment on my mullbery trees where I live near Gothenburg, Sweden. I have one Illinois Everbearing and one ‘Italian’ (also rubraxalba) mulberry tree planted outdoors, and the IE berries are ripening now. I tasted a couple today, and they do have something similar to Morus nigra berries (both sweet and a bit sour). They are the best M alba hybrid I have tasted so far. The hardiness is also no problem here. I also have a Morus nigra in a greenhouse. It gave ,maybe 20-30 berries this year, and they taste fantastic. Thanks for many useful tips in “Uncommon fruits for every garden”!

  12. Scott
    Posted May 31, 2016 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    Lee, multiple reputable sellers say the Morus nigra is hardy to zone 5, but is see others put it at zone 7. I am zone 5, so it really matters. Any way to know for certain? Worse, I want it in a container . . . http://www.floridahillnursery.com/fruit-n-berries-plants-c-4/dwarf-mulberry-dwarf-everbearing-morus-nigra-live-plant-p-411

    • Posted June 1, 2016 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      I am skeptical about that being Morus nigra. I also doubt that Morus nigra is hardy in Zone 5. (I grow mine, which is truly M. nigra, in a pot.) I friend recently showed me his “hardy” M. nigra. To me, the leaves, which are very distinctive for this species, looked like those of M. alba. M. nigra leaves are thick and leathery, dark green, rough, and heart shaped. M. alba leaves are more mitten shaped, lighter green, thinner, and smoother. And M. nigra fruits taste much better.

  13. Scott J
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

    Any update on the Kokuso berries?

    • Posted September 1, 2016 at 8:22 am | Permalink

      Kokuso mulberries have very good flavor. The birds loved them and got them all.

  14. Keith Silva
    Posted October 19, 2016 at 12:56 am | Permalink

    Hi Lee:

    Do you think an Illinois Everbearing mulberry tree could be kept at 10 feet high with summer pruning? If not, how about fifteen feet? I have space limitations and I think fifteen feet tall and wide are my limits. I’m an experienced pruner on other kinds of fruit trees.

    A couple of months ago, I attended a mulberry tasting event at Wolfskill Experimental Farm operated by the University of California, Davis. There were several varieties of mulberries including Illinois Everbearing and Oscar. Oscar was sweeter, but Illinois Everbearing had a more “complex” flavor while also being nicely sweet. Most of the attendees including myself preferred Illinois Everbearing.

    Thanks for your consideration and have a wonderful Fall.

    Regards, Keith Silva

    • Posted October 21, 2016 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      Yes, it could be kept that small pruning.
      Did the mulberry tasting event include any Morus nigra fruits?

      • Keith Silva
        Posted October 23, 2016 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

        Hi Lee:

        I don’t think there were any Morus nigra fruit. I focused on Packistan, Oscar, and Illinois Everbearing which were all there. There were also several varieties with only numbers for names. There were no Noir of Spain nor James II.

        Thanks for the pruning information. Have a great Fall.

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