BY NORIS LEDESMA
FAIRCHILD TROPICAL BOTANIC GARDEN
As published in the Miami Herald
Red mulberry (Morus rubra), a native of South Florida, has found its way to New York and the central parts of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri. In Florida the red mulberry grows wild in dry fields, pinelands and moist woods, where they can form a thicket of rapid-growing trees. The mulberry grows well in South Florida and needs little care. It hybridizes frequently with white mulberry but it does not usually have a long life, as it will be damaged by winds and succumb to disease in less than 20 years, in most cases.
The red mulberry tree brings ample shade to our Florida yards and attracts wildlife with its fruit. The small, sweet fruits are a favorite food for most birds. The mulberry was also used by the native people of the eastern United States for centuries. There are records of the Timucua Indians of northeast Florida using the leaves, twigs and berries to make dyes, and Seminoles using the branches to make bows. Other Indians more to the north consumed the dried fruits during the winter. They would mash, dry and store mulberry fruit, then add them to water to make warm sauces that they sometimes mixed into cornbread. The Cherokee made sweet dumplings by mixing cornmeal and sugar with the fruit. In the past, the fruits were also valued for fattening hogs and chickens but this practice is rarely used today.
Red mulberry can have both male and female trees as well as male and female flowers on the same tree. Only female trees or those with both male and female blooms will produce fruit. In South Florida, the red mulberry blooms in April and May, and fruit reaches full development from June to September depending on the cultivar. Each fruit is composed of many small drupelets. The fruit is excellent with its honey sweet flavor. The best way to consume it is by picking directly off the tree and eating out of hand - if you can fend off the birds that are competing for the same prize! The fruits contain high concentrations of sugar that make them useful to process for jams, jellies and pies.
Here in Florida, trees were widely planted for the production of fruit as a food source and as feed for livestock in years past. When I ask people who have it growing in their back yard, they say it brings back memories from their childhood. There are many legends and folklore associated with the mulberry in the Unites States as a whole and of course here in Florida. The wood from Mulberry trees has also been used in the construction of furniture, boats and tubs and even as fence posts because the heartwood is relatively durable. Other uses of the wood include farm implements, furniture, interior finishing and caskets. So if you ever tire of eating your mulberries there are many uses for your trees.
Red mulberry is a small to medium sized tree, with a rounded, dense canopy and short trunk. The bark is light to dark reddish-brown, separating into narrow, loose, flat strips and shallow, flat fissures. Native Americans used the fibrous bark to make cloth and it can provide children with hours of craft fun.
Red mulberry can be propagated from stem cuttings, root sprouts, air-layering or by budding. Young plants need extra phosphorous to encourage good root development. The red mulberry tree is a colonized species that require full sun to survive. Pruning and thinning can extend the fruiting season and rejuvenate the tree by maintaining size and good shape. Doing this avoids the need for more severe pruning later on.
Floridians have been selecting trees for years, and they are many selections available in South Florida, including the delicious ’Fairchild’ selection.
Fruit quality also can be improved by good nutrition. A granular fertilizer like 8-3-9 or similar formulation should be applied in June and August. The granular fertilizer should be spread lightly below the drip line. A foliar minor element spray and chelated iron drench can be done in June and August to improve the growth of the tree. Iron chelate is expensive, but under South Florida conditions it will make a large difference in the performance of your tree.
So, if you are interested in edible gardening and additional benefits for your yard, the red mulberry may be a perfect addition. You will not be disappointed and neither will your birds, your children or the recipients of your pies.
Ledesma is Curator of Tropical Fruit at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.