Crop profile – Mulberries

A thin twig reaches across the photo from right to left. There are five clusters of unripe mulberries in shades of pale green and pale red along the twig. The leaves are small and a new-green colour, not yet fully formed.

Ripening mulberries along a first-year branch in mid-September. The leaves are still young and developing outwards, the canopy of the tree is not completely closed. The first ripe berries were two weeks after this.

Our neighbour has a mulberry tree. When I was planning the food forest I needed a central primary tree. I spent a lot of time thinking about options, and one that kept coming up was the mulberry. It reaches the height I needed and starts out fast-growing, it is climbable once big enough to climb, it’s deciduous, it grows in poor soils, it’s sufficiently heat tolerant for temperate Australia and into the subtropics, and it’s got a reputation for thriving in abandoned homesteads, i.e. without summer watering. Even better, it makes fruit, and it’s spring fruit (i.e. pre-heatwaves) and of low interest to medfly. You can’t get much better than that. However, the landlord had final choice of tree and gave the mulberry a firm “no”. So, we just have to borrow from our neighbours’ tree. It’s planted at the corner of the property so a third of its root system is on our side of the fence and perhaps another third to half on the verge. They pruned the tree, but nicely at our request left one branch hanging over our side. This year in autumn I took the time to do extended soil care on our side of the tree. We were rewarded. That branch slowly dropped down under its own weight as the new leaves sprouted and grew, and now it hangs low enough that even the two-year-old has no trouble finding fruit he can reach.

A small two-year-old child with a mischievous half-smile holds a green bowl in front of him containing approximately eight ripe black mulberries that he has picked himself.

“Look! I picked all these!” Mulberries are a thing of childhood for those of us old enough to have done such things. The branches droop under the weight of fruit and new leaves making them surprisingly easy to harvest.

Despite looking like a blackberry, mulberry trees are actually in the fig family. Which may explain their toughness and heat-tolerance. They are wind pollinated but self-fertile so they easily crop, and trees pruned after fruiting may produce multiple crops. You’d think a fruit this easy to grow would be on sale all over the place. But no. Not fresh in punnets, not frozen in supermarkets. A quick glance through the ingredients listing of the two most common juice chains I encounter, Java Juice and Boost Juice, show no products containing mulberry. The only place I’ve ever seen them on sale is the dried white mulberries in Middle Eastern groceries. And, very occasionally, as a jam in a community fete, but even that not often enough for me to recall a specific time. Perhaps there’s a reluctance to accept mulberry in our society? When our daycare lady found out we had a tree she was excited and said “Could you please bring…”, and then finished the sentence with “leaves for the kids’ silkworms, we just need a few more to finish the project”. We offered one of my daughter’s friends some when she came to visit, but her mum politely refused -one of their kids has sugar problems so they don’t eat such things most of the time. Our neighbours don’t permit their kids near the tree in fruiting season at all. As a mum I can appreciate that mulberries stain clothes badly and you want the clothes to remain usable as long as possible – but it seems to me that making clean clothes on kids a high life priority is kinda going about things the wrong way.

From a commercial point of view, I’m not finding any info out there on the value of mulberries in this country. The various state ag depts have no information for industry that I’ve found in their fieldnotes and growing notes, and the statistical and research Federal agencies and bureaus don’t list berries of any type in their economic breakdowns of production value as far as I can tell (though I imagine it must be there somewhere). The closest I’ve gotten is a few references to attempts to start a silk industry here in Australia, from as early as the First Fleet to as late as 2010, none of which seem to have gotten very far. From my own observation, I’m guessing that part of the problem is harvesting – trees are much harder to harvest than vines, and mulberries don’t always separate from the tree quite as easily as brambles do from their canes. Every time you reach to pick one, there’s a moment where you try to guess if this is going to be one of the times the berry falls off just as you touch it and heads groundward at speed, or if it’s one of the times the berry stem won’t leave the branch and you end up accidentally crushing the berry trying to get a grip. With experience, you can retrieve most berries most of the time, but you always have the stalk attached. Removing that for cooking – or for production of berry packs for sale to food manufacturers – is fiddly, and carries with it another risk of crushing the berry. That may not matter if you’re just freezing the berries for an icecream maker or pulping them for jam. It certainly doesn’t matter when we’re freezing them for the kids to eat when summer comes or when I make my own jam. So I don’t know if these are really obstacles to mulberries becoming a more common commercial crop, or if the problem is elsewhere in our perceptions.

It’s a shame, really, as mulberries seem ripe for a plethora of sustainable integrated farming options and innovative crops. Aside from just fresh or frozen berries or silkworm fodder, they are a potential source of anthocyanins (natural food colouring), a possible source of ethanol, a fruit that can be made into liqueur or wine. The trees are known to make good animal fodder seeing as they can grow on boundaries and in non-crop “waste” areas, and have green leaves available for animal fodder during our dry summer season. I’ve seen them suggested in permaculture systems as a crop to integrate with pigs. There are records of an integrated farming system used in some parts of China a couple of hundred years ago that combined ducks, fish in ponds, silkworms, mulberries and sometimes rice for a zero waste, self-fertilising circle of products. Watching the ravens scratch around under the tree next door looking for fallen berries and the bugs that eat them, I’m reminded that chickens are a forest bird that like scavenging under canopies, and free-range farmers need canopy to protect flocks from raptors. There are so many possibilities.

The possibilities don’t have to be new, either. The black mulberry is presumed to be native to somewhere in southwestern Asia but its natural range is unknown as it’s been widely grown for fruit since before Roman times. The white mulberry is native to central and eastern China and has been used for silkworm production (and presumably fruit) since at least 3500 BC. Humans have thousands of years of experience with these plants. But it’s mostly in other countries, few of which speak languages even mildly related to ours. In our current Australian culture, mulberries seem destined to be only eaten by children, scrumpers, and adults savvy enough to plant one for themselves.

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One Response to Crop profile – Mulberries

  1. Pingback: Here we go round the mulberry bush… | Attempting zero waste lifestyle in a military household

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