Clockwise from above: Fat juicy mulberries picked by the handful; A mulberry tree dripping with mulberries, watch out for the fruit bats; You know mulberries are ripe when they are almost black. Photos by Robyn Rosenfeldt
Mulberries are a wonderful example of a multifunctional permaculture plant. Most well-known for their abundance of delicious and nutritious berries, they are also a great shade plant, providing shade in summer and allowing sun in during winter.
They provide us with deciduous leaves for compost, and healthy teas to drink. When they are pruned (during autumn after the leaves have fallen), their branches can be cut and used to make durable baskets. Mulberries are also the sole food of the silkworm, an educational and child-friendly pet which creates precious silk, ready to be turned into something beautiful.
The mulberry tree comes from a genus of flowering plants in the family Moraceae known as Morus. There are around 10–16 species of mulberries being grown around the world.
Black mulberry (Morus nigra) is native to western Asia. Red mulberry (Morus rubra), which is a bit hardier than black mulberry, is native to North America where it thrives in deep rich soils. White mulberry (Morus alba tatarica) is from China and was introduced into colonial America for the purpose of silkworm production.
Food: Mulberries belong in the summer kitchen, whether they’re baked into a pie, muffins or cake, served fresh in salads, dried for muesli, frozen and used in smoothies, or cooked up for jam and syrups. Mulberries are delicate once picked, bruising easily. If they need to be stored, either place them unwashed in a covered container or freeze them (frozen berries will store for several months).
Tea: Mulberry leaf tea (which comes from black and white mulberry leaves) is considered to have more calcium than milk, twice the fibre of green tea and more iron than spinach. Some people drink it in order to boost their metabolism and eliminate fatigue. High quality loose leaf tea can be reused up to four times without losing its flavour.
Medicinal: Not only do mulberries taste amazing, but they’re good for you too. Mulberries are an excellent source of iron, which is a rare feature among berries, and are also packed full of vitamin C. They’re also high in anthocyanins, which are pigments found naturally in some foods, thought to be powerful antioxidants. Scientific studies have shown positive health benefits with cancer, ageing and neurological diseases, inflammation, diabetes and bacterial infections.
Food colouring: The plant’s anthocyanins (water soluble pigments) are easily extractable to use as a natural food colouring. The use of mulberries as a food colouring is becoming increasingly popular, as people seek out natural colourings instead of artificial ones.
Paper: During the Angkorian age of the Khmer empire of Southeast Asia, monks at Buddhist temples made paper from the bark of mulberry trees. Known as kozo paper, you can buy it online these days, sourced from countries such as Thailand and Japan.
Mulberries can be grown from seed, as seedling grown trees are generally of better shape and health. However they’re most often planted from large cuttings which root readily. Mulberry tree scion wood can easily be grafted onto other mulberry trees during the winter, when the tree is dormant. If you have a young tree, you will have to be patient, as it normally takes about three years to get a good crop.
Mulberries are hardy and tolerant of cold conditions (to -10 °C). They do well in most parts of Australia, but as they prefer some chilling to fruit well, they don’t thrive in the hot tropical zones. While they prefer full sun and rich soil, they will tolerate a variety of soils and can be planted in part shade. Just make sure you plant them at least 3 metres apart, as they can get big. And think carefully about where you plant your black or red mulberry tree, as they will stain footpaths and patios. Prune carefully in winter or after fruiting to encourage new growth.
Summer is picking time! Mulberries often ripen over an extended period, especially in the cooler climates. They do not ripen further after picking, so only pick fruit which is large and sweet.
Another method of picking is to lay out an old sheet on the ground and shake the branches gently before collecting the fallen fruit.
Be prepared to either net your tree or share your bounty with the birds, who love mulberries as much as we do.