Red Mulberry – a native fruit tree


Red Mulberry (Morus rubra) is a native understory tree that naturally occurs along streams and riverbanks and in woods. Red Mulberry (USDA symbol MORU2) shelters smaller trees and plants with its wide leaves and is itself protected by large trees in the ecosystem. Morus rubra is a deciduous tree that allows light to filter to the plants on the ground in winter, then blooms in spring. Its long, narrow berries appear red and darken to purple.

Leaves of native Morus rubra and invasive Morus alba both are often heart-shaped and sometimes lobed. Red mulberry leaves have a tough upper texture and soft hairs on the underside. By contrast, leaves of the invasive white mulberry have glossy surfaces

There are four mulberry species that occur in Texas. Morus microphylla, which grows in thinner soils in the western half of the state, and Morus rubra, are the only two that are native. The native range of Red Mulberry extends east from Central Texas to Florida, and north to Ontario, Canada.

The ripe fruit and new leaf growth of Morus rubra are eaten raw or cooked. Unripened fruits should not be eaten. Conflicting information exists as to whether the unripened fruit contains a hallucinogenic or slightly toxic compound until ripened. It is not unusual for fruit of various species (native or exotic) to be inedible until chemical changes occur in the ripening process.

Unfortunately, the laboratory research that is done to determine compounds present in common exotic plants, is rarely performed on native plants. There is also great inequality between states in funding for botanical research. And so a species such as Diospyros texana, which is native to Texas and Mexico, has not been researched as much as Callicarpa americana (American Beautyberry) which is also native to North Carolina and Florida–two states that promote botanical research in their public universities. It is widely known that Red Mulberry has been eaten as long as humans have lived in this area, yet scientific research has not concluded why many people report that the unripe fruit causes stomach ache.

The surest way to distinguish between native Morus rubra and the more common invasive Morus alba is the shape of ripe fruit. Berries of Morus rubra, as shown in this photo, form a unique tubular or cylindrical shape.

Likewise, botanists advise that the tree’s milky sap has low toxicity and should not be swallowed, but Native Americans used it to expel tapeworms. Native Americans used root tea to expel parasites, resolve constipation and cure dysentery. Native Americans mixed ripe mulberries with animal fat to preserve food as pemmican. The fruit was eaten or used in drinks. Native Americans cooked mulberries in dough and baked them in cake and bread. Today the ripened fruit continues to be dried and crushed to powder to preserve its use. Red Mulberry fruit is a traditional treatment for fever. Appalachians utilize fruit as Native Americans did, and additionally preserve the harvest through fruit pies and mulberry wines. Native Choctaw used tree fiber for weaving. Humans have extensively used Red Mulberry wood in fencing, furniture and tools.

The phases of fruit growth shown here, (from upper right to center to lower right) provide a unique example of how difficult mulberry species id can be. The fruits on this tree are white in early formation (a distinctive trait of Morus alba) and ripen to a black tubular-shaped berry (a distinctive trait of Morus rubra). Arborists attribute the presence of distinctive traits of two species on the same tree to common hybridization of the native tree with invasive tree.

Red Mulberry is the larval host of Nymphalis antiopa “Mourning Cloak” butterflies. Its fruit sustains birds and mammals.

Morus rubra is sometimes displaced by its Asian cousin Morus alba “White Mulberry” (USDA symbol MOAL) which was originally imported as part of the silk industry, to feed silkworms. The silk industry did not succeed in the USA. As often happens when exotic plants are introduced where they have no natural predators to keep them in balance, the species thrived. White Mulberry has displaced native trees throughout the continental USA.

Both the native and invasive mulberry trees have leaves that may sometimes be lobed and other times are not; this can make identification a challenge. The leaves of Morus alba are glossy, and those of Morus rubra are rough but not glossy. Both trees have edible fruit but the fruits of native Morus rubra first appear red, whereas the fruits of the invasive Morus alba are pale and then darken as they ripen. The fruit of native Morus rubra Red Mulberry is a long, round berry whereas fruit of the invasive Morus alba White Mulberry tree is more oval in shape.

Morus alba is one of the invasive species profiled in the Invaders of Texas Invasive Species database:

Native Plant Information Network profile of Morus rubra: >

Detailed cultivation information is available in the The Plants For A Future profile of Morus rubra:

Morus rubra is the larval host of Nymphalis antiopa “Mourning Cloak” butterflies. Butterfly species nformation can be found in the Butterflies and Moths of North America profile of Nymphalis antiopa “Mourning Cloak”:

Wild Edible Texas offers a recipe for a nontraditional use of Morus rubra in Mulberry Sorbet: >




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About the Region

New Braunfels, the location of our Fall 2024 Symposium, straddles both the Edwards Plateau Ecoregion and the Blackland Prairie ecoregion. Interstate 35 divides the city of New Braunfels; its path through the city closely parallels the boundary of these two ecoregions, with the Edwards Plateau on the west side and the Blackland Prairies region to the east. The Edwards Plateau area is also called the Hill Country; however, this general term covers a much larger area extending farther north. Spring-fed creeks are found throughout the region; deep limestone canyons, rivers, and lakes (reservoirs) are common. Ashe juniper is perhaps the most common woody species found throughout the region. Additional woody species include various species of oak, with live oak (Quercus fusiformis) being the most common. Sycamores (Platanus occidentalis) and bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) border waterways. This area is well known for its spring wildflower displays, though they may be viewed in spring, late summer, and fall, as well. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, average annual rainfall in the Edwards Plateau ranges from 15 to 34 inches.

The Blackland Prairie extends from the Red River south to San Antonio, bordered on the west by the Edwards Plateau and the Cross Timbers, and on the east by the Post Oak Savannah. Annual rainfall averages 30 to 40 inches, with higher averages to the east. This region is dominated by prairie species. The most common grass species include little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in the uplands and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) in the riparian areas and drainages. Common herbaceous flowering plants include salvias, penstemons, and silphiums. This area has suffered greatly from overgrazing and agricultural use. Few intact areas remain, though many of the plants can be found along county roadsides throughout the region.

Our four host chapters (New Braunfels, Lindheimer, Guadalupe, and the Hill Country chapters) are located in one or both of the ecoregions above. However, the eastern portion of Guadalupe County also falls within the Post Oak Savanna ecoregion. Annual rainfall averages 35 to 45 inches, with higher averages to the east. A wide variety of hardwood trees are found, including several species of oaks, elms, and in the Bastrop area, loblolly pine (Pinus taeda). Grasses and forbs dominate in the open savannas, with most common grass being little bluestem. Ranching, agriculture, and fire suppression have allowed woody species to encroach on the once-open savannas.

Source: Wildflowers of Texas by Michael Eason