(Morus sp. – Family Moraceae)
mûre (French), Maulbeere (German), mora (Spanish/Italian), amoreira (Portuguese), morbær (Danish/Norwegian), mullbär (Swedish), mulperi (Finnish), shelkovitsa/tutovaya yagoda (Russian), morwa (Polish), dud/murva (Serbo-Croat), duda (Romanian), chernitsa (Bulgarian), moran/mouro (Greek), dut (Turkish), tut (Hebrew/Persian), tut aswad (Arabic), bebesaran (Indonesian), sang shen (Chinese), kuwa (Japanese)
(M. alba – White mulberry)
(M. multicaulis – used for silkworm forage). The mulberry leaves provide the staple food for the common silkworm Bombyx mori.
(M. nigra – Black mulberry)
(M. rubra – Red or American mulberry)
The most famous wedding dress in recent history was that worn by Diana, the Princess of Wales. It was made in part by thousands of silkworms. Silk is the most expensive fiber in the world, and the mulberry tree significantly contributes to that renown.
M. nigra and M. alba are believed to be native to Asia; the white mulberry to the mountainous regions of Central and Eastern China and the black or common mulberry to the mountains of Nepal and southern Caucasus.
The mulberry in China has been cultivated for at least 5,000 years, and mainly for the rearing of silkworms. However, the bark of the black (M. nigra) mulberry tree was also used in traditional Chinese paper-making.
These deciduous trees grow to a height of six to nine meters, with the leaves covering the densely spreading branches. The leaves contain traces of essential oils that attract the silkworm to the sticky rubbery sap that is believed to influence the composition of the silk.
Each strand of silk, which is produced by glands and secreted from the silkworm’s mouth, is three times stronger than a strand of steel of the same density.
Since a tree can live for over 600 years, and comes from seed, Roman introductions to Britain, France, and Spain, would have survived until Anglo-Saxon times and beyond, although the first mention by English authors seems to be during the 16th century.
The mulberry planted when Drapers’ Hall in London was built in 1364 lived until 1969. Until recently, there were many trees in England which dated back to the 17th century when James I, in a “fit of enthusiasm for rearing silkworms”, planted plantations of them around England.
The entire yield was enough to make only one dress for his Queen, prompting silk importers to beg the king to stop his experiments while leaving the trees in place. It appears that the trees imported for this purpose were the wrong species, so the king’s project failed.
An orchard of mulberry trees once stood where Buckingham Palace now stands and was known to be a fashionable rendezvous setting.
While silkworms feed on the leaves, the berries are left to ripen and drop to the ground. At first, the fruit resembles a blackberry; but, as it grows, it develops quite differently.
Clusters of small berries form each with an individually lobed surface and each formed from one of a cluster of flowers. The fruit may be allowed to ripen fully before being gathered, and then, rather than being picked, are allowed to fall off the tree, producing a delicious, slightly musky flavour.
This is one reason the tree is planted on grassy ground which is often covered by a drop cloth when the season arrives. A ripe mulberry is soft and easily damaged, and its purple juice stains everything.
The Romans displayed themselves as true mulberry connoisseurs, preferring those from such certain districts as Ostia to others, and studying the behaviour of the trees, as commented upon by Pliny the Elder.
In ancient Greece, black mulberries were better known. The Roman emperor Justinian deliberately encouraged their propagation as part of an enterprise in silk production. However, by the 16th century, it was discovered that it was the white mulberry that the silkworms preferred. By that time, many of the trees had been planted in Europe, with the hope of stimulating a silk trade. Some of the white mulberry trees still survive today.
The white mulberry, the one silkworms prefer, bears fruits which are not always white, but may be pink or purple; but for humans, they are not as tasty as the black ones.
Black mulberries are elongated, dark wine-red berries and resemble loganberries. It is a naturalized type in the US found in many gardens, but it cannot withstand the winters of the north.
Other mulberries native to Asia and the Americas have edible fruits, but only those of the red mulberry in the eastern US stand in comparison with the black mulberry. The red mulberry leaves turn to a beautiful yellow in autumn.