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Red Mulberry – a native fruit tree

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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: https://texasinvasives.org/plant_database/detail.php?symbol=MOAL

Native Plant Information Network profile of Morus rubra: >https://www.wildflower.org/gallery/species.php?id_plant=MORU2

Detailed cultivation information is available in the The Plants For A Future profile of Morus rubra: https://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=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”: https://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Nymphalis-antiopa

Wild Edible Texas offers a recipe for a nontraditional use of Morus rubra in Mulberry Sorbet: >http://www.wildedibletexas.com/2014/04/mulberries.html?m=1

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**ARCHIVED POST AUTHOR: cywinski

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