This article was published on natureofhome.com
Mulberries are one of the easiest trees you can grow. Whether you’re looking for something that packs ornamental value, hoping to attract wild birds, or planning to grow a reliable fruit tree that produces an abundant crop year after year, these underrated trees will quickly earn a well-deserved spot in your garden.
But beware: not all mulberry trees are created equal, and some may be more trouble than they’re worth.
This guide will teach you everything you need to know about how to grow a mulberry tree, how to care for and harvest it, and how to deal with the most common cultivation problems. It will also discuss the best ways to propagate it, which varieties are best suited for your garden, and will take a quick look at its rich cultural significance.
Meaning & Symbolism
In Chinese mythology, mulberries are associated with the Tree of Life, linking the earth and heaven. They also have a deep spiritual meaning in Japan, where vessels made from mulberry paper are used for offerings in Shinto shrines.
In Babylonian mythology, the lovers Pyramus and Thisbe pursue their relationship despite the fact that their parents are against it, and agree to meet by a mulberry tree. Thisbe arrives first but is startled by a lioness, and drops her veil as she flees.
When Pyramus arrives at the scene, he sees the veil and, believing that his lover had been devoured by a lioness, stabs himself to death. Upon her return, Thisbe finds her dead lover and, distraught, resolves to take her own life. This story of ill-fated, star-crossed lovers was later retold by Greek poet Ovid, in his Metamorphoses.
The mulberry tree also makes several appearances in the Bible. In one particular instance, the sound of the wind rustling through mulberries leaves is taken as a sign from the Lord that David’s army would be victorious in battle.
Today, the productive and hardy mulberry tree is also a symbol of abundance, resilience, faith, and health.
Identifying a Mulberry Tree
Mulberries are several species of deciduous, fruiting trees found growing in temperate regions around the world. They are best known for their role in the silk industry, and for their edible, berry-like fruit.
Depending on the species, they can grow to a height of almost 80 feet (24 meters) and usually produce fruit 5 or 6 years after planting.
Mulberry trees are easy to identify using the lobate shape of the leaves and the shape of the fruit, which looks very similar to a blackberry. The fruit is found in abundance from early summer until early fall, and it starts off white, then gradually ripens to a dark red or almost black color.
There are over 150 species of mulberries, but only a few are found in commercial cultivation. Here are some of the most popular species and cultivars:
- White mulberry (Morus alba): native to India and China, this species has naturalized in many areas across the world, especially in the US. It has been cultivated for centuries as a food source for silkworms. Despite the name, it actually produces dark purple fruit, with a mild, sweet flavor.
- Red mulberry (Morus rubra): a species native to North America, it is smaller than the white mulberry, but produces larger leaves. It is currently listed as endangered in Canada and the states of Connecticut and Massachusets, due to hybridization with white mulberries.
- Illinois Everbearing Mulberry: a hybrid between the white and red mulberry, this tree produces long, black fruit, has a contained growth, and can bear fruit after 3 to 4 years. It’s a self-fertile variety, which means that you don’t need to plant separate male and female trees to ensure fruit production.
- Black mulberry (Morus nigra): native to southwestern Asia, it produces large, dark purple fruit, with a balanced sweetness and juicy texture. It is one of the tastiest mulberry types you can grow in your garden. The Dwarf Everbearing variety is also self-fertile, with sweet, medium-sized fruit.
Uses for Mulberry Trees
Mulberries have a wide range of uses and benefits. The edible fruit is rich in vitamin C and minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and iron.
Fruit can be eaten fresh or used in cooking, teas, or dietary supplements. Leaf extracts are used to help your hair retain its natural color, prevent premature skin aging, and lighten skin pigmentation. Mulberry tree bark is also used to make paper and barrels for aging spirits.
Mulberry fruits are an important food source for wild birds, especially robins, mockingbirds, brown thrashers, bluebirds, cardinals, and orioles.
The leaves are the only food source for the silkworm (Bombyx mori), which is why mulberry trees enjoyed such widespread cultivation in the past.
A Note on Toxicity
Mulberry trees produce a white, milky sap, which can cause skin irritations and gastrointestinal problems if ingested. Unripe mulberries can cause nausea, vomiting, cramps, and hallucinations.
If eaten in large amounts, ripe mulberries can also have a laxative effect.
How to Grow and Care for a Mulberry Tree
Mulberry trees are fast-growing and easy to care for. They can grow in most soil types, they can tolerate drought and frost, and rarely suffer from severe pest and disease problems.
Young plants do need a bit more work until they become fully established and start bearing fruit. But, after the first few years, these trees will pretty much look after themselves.
Here’s what you need to know about successfully growing a mulberry tree in your garden.
Mulberry trees are not pretentious about the type of soil they grow in. They can tolerate acidic or alkaline soil, as well as clay or sandy soil. The only thing to pay close attention to is drainage. If your garden soil is clay-heavy and retains too much water when it rains, the tree’s roots will suffer.
Before you plant a mulberry tree in your garden, pick a location that will accommodate its growth. Mulberries can grow to be over 66 feet tall (20 meters), and just as wide. They also develop a wide, fast-growing root system.
Planty your mulberry tree in a part of your garden where it can receive either full sun or partial shade. Most importantly, though, make sure that it’s far away from any structures that can be damaged by the roots, such as the foundation of your house, sewage system or septic tank, or your driveway.
Water and Fertilizers
Young mulberry trees need regular watering and fertilizer for at least 3 – 4 years after they have been planted in the garden, to ensure that they become established and bear fruit. Keep the soil moist, and make sure it never dries out completely.
In early spring, you can give your mulberry tree a balanced, organic fertilizer.
Once established, mulberry trees are fairly tolerant to drought, and don’t typically require fertilizers. To keep them healthy, you can apply a mulch dressing around the base of the tree once a year, preferably in spring.
Planting a Mulberry Tree
The best time to plant a mulberry tree in your garden is early winter, when the tree is dormant and the soil is not yet completely frozen. Alternatively, you can plant a mulberry in early spring. Check out your local nursery or a reputable seller and buy a young tree that’s about 3 years old.
Use a shovel and dig a hole bigger than the root ball of the tree. Take a long, sturdy stake, and stick it in the middle of the hole, plant the mulberry tree next to it, and use garden twine to secure the tree to the stake. The stake will provide much-needed support from the wind while the tree is young.
Fill the hole with compost or loam, and gently press the soil around the tree with your foot. Avoid stomping too hard, as this can damage the roots. Once planted, give your mulberry tree a good watering.
If you’re planting several mulberry trees in your garden, always leave at least 30 feet (9 meters) between each tree, but make sure they’re not too close to your house or other important structures.
Tip: Try planting grass or a clover lawn around your mulberry tree. This will make it easier to harvest the fruit, and prevent them from getting bruised when they fall off the branches. Also, this is a great way to keep your paths and driveway clean from berry stains.
Mulberry trees don’t need much pruning, but trimming crowded shoots will help retain their shape. Pruning the lower shoots and branches will also make it easier to harvest the fruit by giving you space to maneuver under the tree.
The best time to prune your mulberry is in early winter, or one month after it has dropped all its leaves.
Mulberry trees grow well with alliums such as garlic, chives, and onions, and flowers such as nasturtiums and marigolds.
Keep in mind that, as the tree grows, it will outcompete neighboring plants and vegetables. Its branches will shade out nearby crops, and the roots will draw most of the water and nutrients from the soil.
Mulberry is a fantastic tree to plant in an orchard. Birds love mulberries and will flock to eat the fruit, leaving your other trees, such as cherries, unscathed.
Blooming and Fruiting
It takes a mulberry tree anywhere between 3 and 10 years to produce fruit, although the average is 5 – 6 years after the planting date. Trees bloom in spring, and the fruit is typically ready to harvest in summer or early fall.
As long as the tree is healthy, it will continue to bear fruit for at least 25 years.
If you’re growing mulberry trees for fruit production, keep in mind that only female blackberry trees produce fruit, and they will need the pollen from a male blackberry tree. You can get fruit from a single tree if you buy an everbearing or self-fertile mulberry tree.
Harvest and Storage
Mulberry fruit is ready to harvest between June and early September, depending on where you live. Always wait until the fruit is a deep, dark purple color. Ripe mulberries have a sweet and mildly tart taste, with a hint of watermelon rind in the background. If you pick them too soon, they will have a bland taste and watery texture, and will be mildly toxic.
The easiest way to harvest mulberries is to place a plastic sheet under the tree and give it a good shake. Ripe fruit will fall off the branches very easily. Fruit will ripen in several batches throughout summer, so make sure to harvest your mulberries regularly.
Tip: The juice of mulberry fruits stains easily and is difficult to remove. To prevent a messy harvest, try wearing gloves and an old pair of clothes that you wouldn’t mind throwing away if they get very badly stained.
Fresh mulberries have a very short shelf life. They will last in the crisper drawer of your fridge for 1 – 2 days before they turn into a soggy mess. To store mulberries for later, you can either freeze them, turn them into jam, jelly, and syrup, or use the fruit to make mulberry wine. Alternatively, you can mix them with a bit of lemon juice and dry them in a dehydrator.
How to Propagate a Mulberry Tree
The best way to propagate a mulberry tree is using semi-hardwood cuttings. You can use this method in late winter or early spring, when the tree is waking up from dormancy and resuming its active growth season.
Use a sharp, sterilized pair of gardening shears and cut the tip of a branch. The cutting should be at least 6 inches long (15 cm) and ½ an inch in diameter. Dip the cut end in rooting hormone, place it in a glass of water, and keep it on a sunny windowsill.
Mulberry cuttings can take several months to root, so be patient. Once the roots are at least 2 inches (5 cm) long, plant them in a container filled with a well-draining potting mix, and monitor them for at least 6 months before transplanting them to the garden soil.
Here is a video showing mulberry cuttings:
Growing a Mulberry Tree From Seed
It is possible to grow a mulberry tree from seed. This propagation method ensures a healthier plant, but on the downside, it takes longer than using cuttings.
Start by removing all the fruit pulp from the seeds, to prevent molding. Fill a container with a sterile, well-draining potting mix, place the seeds on top, and sprinkle them with a thin layer of soil. Water them well, and keep the container in a warm, sunny room.
After about 6 months after seed germination, you can transplant the mulberry seedlings into a wider container. For best results, always wait at least 2 years before planting them into the garden soil.
Tip: Seeds from mulberry fruit left on the ground after harvesting often germinate on their own. If you’re lucky, you may find mulberry seedlings growing in your garden in spring. Wait until the seedlings are at least 6 inches tall (15 cm), then very gently dig them out and transplant them into a container.
Growing Mulberry in Containers
Growing a mulberry in a container is a viable option if you don’t have space in your garden for a large tree. You can plant mulberry trees in a plastic or terracotta container, as well as a raised bed.
However, keep in mind that mulberry trees have fast-growing roots, and will quickly outgrow the container they’re kept in. Also, after several years, it will become very difficult to find a container large enough to fit the tree, so you’ll have to think about either planting it directly in the garden soil or discarding it entirely.
Potting and Repotting a Mulberry Tree
For best results, plant your mulberry tree in a container that’s at least 12 inches (30 cm) wide. The container should always have drainage holes at the bottom, to prevent issues with root rot.
Fill the container with a well-draining, nutrient-rich potting medium. A mixture of compost and universal potting mix would work nicely. Handle the tree carefully when transplanting, and remember to add a stake to keep it upright.
Water the tree well, and place the container in a sunny part of your garden, patio, or balcony.
Mulberry trees don’t transplant well and may go into transplant shock if the roots are damaged. You’ll know that your tree needs to be repotted when the roots start coming out from the top of the pot and through the drainage hole.
When the time comes to repot it, always pick the largest container you can find, to avoid having to repot it too often.
Mulberry trees don’t need any special treatment during winter. They are very frost-hardy and will enter a period of dormancy after they shed their leaves and the weather gets too cold. Young trees can attract deer and rabbits, but you can protect them by covering the trunk in chicken wire.
Mulberries are tough, resilient trees that rarely suffer from pests or diseases. But, to be on the safe side, here are a few common problems to keep an eye out for.
Pests and Diseases
Common pests for the mulberry tree include mealybugs, scale, whiteflies, and the fall webworm. You can protect young trees from these pests by spraying them preventatively with a neem oil solution.
In the case of severe infestations, especially if you’re dealing with fall webworms, pruning and burning the damaged branches is the best solution.
Mulberry trees can also be susceptible to diseases such as bacterial blight, powdery mildew, and cankers. You can prevent these diseases by avoiding overhead watering for young plants, regularly watering your tree, and ensuring proper air circulation.
If your tree does get sick, prune and burn infected branches.
The biggest problem for the mulberry tree is the honey fungus (Armillaria mellea), which will kill the tree by slowly destroying its roots. This fungus is difficult to detect, and by the time you start seeing small mushrooms pop up around the trunk, it may be too late to save your mulberry.
Fungicides don’t work on the honey fungus, and the only way to get rid of it and prevent it from spreading to your other trees is to dig out the infected tree along with its roots and destroy it.
Mulberry Tree Doesn’t Bear Fruit
Mulberry trees can take up to 10 years after planting to bear fruit. If your tree is old enough and it’s still not fruiting, this is probably due to the fact that the blooms were damaged by an early frost, the tree is sick, or it lacks nutrients.
Mulberry Tree Leaves Turning Yellow
Yellowing leaves on your mulberry tree could indicate that the tree is thirsty. Although mature mulberries can tolerate drought, young trees need regular watering to stay healthy.
Alternatively, leaves turning yellow could also be a sign of pests or diseases.
Mulberry Tree Leaves Are Wilting
If the leaves on your mulberry tree are wilting or curling, this is often a symptom of fungal or viral disease, or even pests. Young trees are sensitive to frost, and a surprise cold snap will cause them to shed their leaves.
Mulberry Tree Leaves Have Brown Spots
Brown spots on mulberry leaves indicate a fungal infection, usually caused by the Cercospora leaf spot. Fungicides containing myclobutanil or chlorothalonil can be used to treat this disease, but keep in mind that these substances have been banned in several countries due to their toxicity and threat to the environment.
Mulberry Tree Is Leaning
Mulberry trees have a natural tendency to lean, especially when they grow older. Unfortunately, this can cause the trunk to snap, and the tree can fall over.
To fix a leaning mulberry, use a padded prop to keep the trunk in an upright position, and trim back some of the heaviest branches.
Practical Considerations Before Planting a Mulberry Tree
Mulberry trees have many uses. However, growing them can also have disadvantages, and can have a negative impact on your health, the environment, and even your curb appeal. Here are three things to keep in mind before you buy a mulberry to plant in your garden.
They Produce a Lot of Pollen
Male mulberry trees produce large quantities of pollen, which can pose a health threat if you have allergies or suffer from asthma. In fact, some cities in Texas and Arizona banned planting and selling mulberry trees for this exact reason. If you’re allergic, try planting female mulberries instead, which do not produce pollen.
They Can Be Invasive
In the wild, mulberry trees propagate very easily, both vegetatively and through seeds. They also hybridize easily, which can threaten the genetic availability of native species. Depending on where you live, try growing mulberry species that are native to your region. As a rule of thumb, avoid the white mulberry, which is native to China, and is responsible for displacing native flora in the United States and South Africa.
Mulberry fruits stain any surface they come into contact with. They also turn soft and mushy very quickly once they fall to the ground, which makes cleaning them up a real pain. To avoid messy lawns, paths, and driveways, try planting male mulberry trees instead, which do not produce fruit.
Mulberries are low-maintenance fruiting trees that are suitable for most gardens and growing zones. With the right care guide and by selecting the right cultivar, they can be a real asset to your garden, and provide you with shade and an abundance of tasty, nutritious fruit for many decades.
USDA Forest Service – PDF
Red and White Mulberry in Indiana – PDF
Fruitless Mulberry Tree – PDF
Last Updated on July 8, 2022 by Davin