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Morus nigra L. 1753
pronounced: MOR-russ NY-gruh
(Moraceae – the fig family)
common name: Mulberry
Morus is the ancient Latin name for the mulberry tree; nigra is the feminine form of niger, black. If anyone is wondering why morus (which looks to be a masculine form) should be described by a feminine adjective, the reason is that morus, despite its apparent masculinity, is actually a feminine noun.
This is a genus of deciduous trees native to warm temperate and tropical regions of Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas, the majority of them from Asia. Mulberries are fast-growing when young, but soon become slow-growing, and rarely exceed 10–15 m in height. The leaves are alternate, simple, often lobed (more often lobed on juvenile shoots than on mature trees), and serrate on the margin. These leaves are, of course, the sole food source of the silkworm, Bombyx mori . The taxonomy of the mulberry is complex and disputed, and even further complicated by hybridizations, as the hybrids are fertile.
As well as the silkworm, the caterpillars of the Orange Fruit Borer Isotenes miserana feed on the plant.
Mulberries can be grown from seed, and this is usually advisable, as seedling-grown trees are usually of better shape and health. In a number of countries, after the leaves have fallen, the season’s branches are lopped and used for basket-making – the resulting baskets are very durable, and are used in many of the village tasks.
The fruit is a multiple one, 2–3 cm long. These fruits, when immature, are white or green to pale yellow with pink edges. In most species the fruits turn red when they are ripening, and finish up as dark purple to black. The fruits should not be picked until they are fully ripe, as the ripening process does not continue after they are removed from the tree.
Mulberry wood is strong, tough and elastic. It seasons well, is carved and turned easily, and finishes well. If it is to be used for timber, it needs to be cut on the quarter. It is quite yellow when it is being worked, but turns a light to medium brown within a few months. It is much liked by makers of inlaid work. In Japan it is used for expensive furniture, and as a veneer to cover cheaper furniture to make it look traditional.
If you are tempted to plant a mulberry tree, you should position it in the garden with care. The tree spreads to cover a considerable area. Dropping fruit will stain paths (and cars), and the stains are not easy to remove. When birds eat the fruit, their droppings will usually leave a purple stain – so mulberry trees should be sited well away from washing-lines.
George Bernard Shaw, the Irish playwright, planted a mulberry tree in Priory Park, Malvern, England, on the occasion of his 80th birthday in July 1936. In the early 1960s, a cutting struck from Shaw’s tree was planted in Melbourne’s Malvern. This cutting has grown into a fine tree, but, alas, Shaw’s original tree was blown over some years ago in a storm. In 2009, young trees grown from the Australian tree were sent to England to replace Shaw’s original. The mulberry tree went round the world, unlike in the nursery rhyme, where the world goes round the mulberry tree.
Here we go round the mulberry bush
On a cold and frosty morning.
Photographs taken at Picnic Bay 2009, 2012, Nelly Bay 2014
Page last updated 1st January 2017