Mulberry is a medium-sized deciduous tree that produces small, tasty but messy fruits in summer. There are two species commonly found in North America: red mulberry (Morus rubus), a native of eastern North America; and white mulberry (Morus alba), a native of China that is now widely naturalized in North America. Both the red and white species—as well as any hybrids—possess dark green leaves with serrated edges and feature berries that look strikingly similar to blackberries. White mulberry is a rampant spreader and hybridizer, so it's likely that the trees staining sidewalks and driveways with their fruit are this species or a hybrid form. Regardless of their issues, mulberry trees of all types can make acceptable landscape additions as long as they're selected and cared for properly. Mulberry trees are best planted in the early spring and will grow quickly.
The leaves and unripe fruit of mulberry contain a latex that is mildly toxic to humans.
|Common Name||Mulberry tree, red mulberry, white mulberry|
|Botanical Name||Morus spp.|
|Plant Type||Deciduous tree|
|Mature Size||30–60 ft. tall, 20–40 ft. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full, partial|
|Soil Type||Rich, moist but well-drained|
|Soil pH||Mildly acidic to neutral|
|Hardiness Zone||4–8 (USDA)|
|Native Range||North America, China|
|Toxicity||Leaves, unripe fruit mildly toxic to humans|
Mulberry Tree Care
Mulberries are easy trees to grow, but they aren't suited to every garden. For many people, it will be best to pick one of the seedless (and fruitless) cultivars available, including Morus alba "Chapparal," which is a weeping variety, and Morus alba "Kingan," a very drought-tolerant cultivar suitable for some drier regions.
It is important to keep in mind that mulberry trees have very prolific, fast-growing roots. Plant your tree away from important structures such as your foundation, driveway, or garage, and features such as utility, septic, or sewage lines, so you don't risk the roots damaging vital elements of your property. You should also take the tree's mature height into consideration and pick a spot where it can be kept relatively free of pruning (which causes it stress) and let it do its job of producing berries and enjoy the many fruits it will offer you.
White mulberry, a native of China, is considered a seriously invasive plant in much of the Midwest and in scattered locations elsewhere. It is best to select a sterile cultivar whenever possible in these regions Controlling the spread of fruiting trees is very difficult, as birds readily spread the seeds after eating the fruit.
Mulberry trees can thrive in both full sun and partial shade conditions, though as with many fruiting trees, more light equals more fruit.
Mulberry trees are somewhat adaptable and can deal with clay, loam, and sandy soil with ease, as long as the mixture can maintain sufficient drainage. The trees can thrive in a range of pH levels varying from neutral to mildly acidic.
Water your mulberry tree deeply and regularly after initially planting it in order to help it establish a strong root system—two to three gallons per week for the first year is recommended. Once established, mulberry trees are fairly drought tolerant, though prolonged dry weather can lead to a reduction in fruiting or early dropping of the unripe berries.
Temperature and Humidity
Depending on the species, most mulberry trees are cold-hardy and can handle temperatures as low as minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit during dormancy. They produce the optimal amount of fruit in regions where growing-season temperatures are between 68 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit.
Mulberry trees often do quite well with no fertilization, though they can benefit from a yearly application. Feed your tree once in late winter, using a balanced 10-10-10 mixture and measuring out 1 pound of fertilizer for each inch in the trunk's diameter.
Types of Mulberry Tree
There are five species of mulberry trees, three of which are likely to be seen in North America:
- Morus alba: Also known as a white mulberry tree, this is the most common mulberry species found in North America. This native of China can be easily distinguished from other trees in the genus thanks to its blackberry-shaped fruit, which begins white but darkens to purplish red. It is available in the nursery trade in several cultivars that are ornamental and sterile, making them more suitable for landscape use.
- Morus rubra: The native North American red mulberry tree has rough leaves that are twice as long as Morus alba and feature a coarse hairy underside. The fruit starts light green then turns to red or dark purple when ripe. Red mulberry trees are often difficult to find in the nursery trade but they can be found growing wild in eastern Canada and the U.S.
- Morus nigra: Black mulberry trees average 40 feet tall and feature dark purple (almost black) berries that are quite large when ripe. This native of Asia is not commonly found in North America.
- Morus australis: Also known as Korean mulberry, this species is a small tree, reaching only 20 to 30 feet at maturity. It features light green foliage that is slightly glossed and fruit that ranges in color from almost white to deep red and purple. It is not a common landscape tree in North America.
- Morus celtidifolia: Texas mulberry trees are native to the Southwest and appear more shrub-like, growing to a maximum height of just 25 feet. The edible fruits are red, purple, or nearly black and are fantastic for drawing wildlife to your landscape, especially birds.
Routine pruning is not necessary with this tree, but damaged or crossing shoots should be pruned away in late fall or winter while the tree is dormant, which helps avoid sap loss.
Mulberry trees are easily propagated by rooting semi-hardwood branch cuttings. Here's how to do it:
- In spring as new growth is starting, cut 6- to 8-inch long segments from the tips of 1/2-inch diameter branches—branches that are relatively new but not completely soft and green—using sharp pruners.
- Dip the bottom of the cuttings into rooting hormone, and plant the ends in small pots filled with commercial potting soil or seed starter mix.
- Water the pots well, then place them inside 1-gallon clear plastic bags bound with rubber bands.
- Place the pots in a full shade location until they root, checking periodically to make sure they remain moist.
- When the cuttings have rooted (generally after about one month), you can take off the plastic bags and continue growing them in the pots until fall, when they can be planted in the garden.
Not every cutting will successfully root, so it's a good idea to take at least four or five cuttings to increase your odds.
Growing Mulberry From Seed
Mulberry trees are incredibly easy to grow from seed, as evidenced by the rampant self-seeding they produce. Fruits collected from the tree can be dried to collect seeds for planting, or you can simply wait for volunteers to spring up and carefully transplant them to new locations.
Potting and Repotting Mulberry
Container culture is not common for these plants, since they are fast-growing and can quickly achieve a size that's too large for most containers. That said, if you are willing to prune often and willing to sacrifice the tree when it becomes too large after a few years, it's entirely possible to grow mulberry in a large container for a sunny deck or patio, though the messy fruit can be a hindrance in these locations.
Use ordinary commercial potting soil amended with plenty of compost, in the largest, widest container that's practical. It's better to start with a large pot rather than repotting as the plant grows larger, as repotting is not very practical.
Be prepared to water and feed more often with a container-grown mulberry tree. For winter, try to move the potted tree to a slightly sheltered location.
Protecting the trunks of young trees with metal shields or hardware cloth for the first few years will shield them from rabbits, deer, and other browsing animals that gnaw on the bark. After three years or so, the trees are usually large enough to resist animal damage.
Routine fall cleanup of fallen fruit is a good idea to reduce the rampant self-seeding that occurs with mulberry trees. These hardy trees require no protection against winter cold if they are being grown within their accepted hardiness range.
Common Pests & Plant Diseases
Mulberry trees may have to contend with a variety of pest issues, including whitefly, scale, and mealybugs. The good news is that these bugs won't really cause much damage to mature trees—they're tough enough to withstand it, which is good because treating a large 50-foot tree is no easy feat. If you notice signs of an infestation on a more vulnerable young sapling, you can apply a horticultural oil such as neem oil.
These trees are relatively free of disease problems, though bacterial blights and fungal leaf spot diseases may sometimes occur. Diseased plant parts should be removed as they are noticed. Fungal diseases are rarely fatal and usually require no treatment.
Mulberry trees are more likely to incur pest and disease problems in warmer climates.
How to Get Mulberry to Bloom
Generally speaking, homeowners don't want to encourage mulberry trees to bloom, since the flowers aren't showy and they lead to messy fruits that are of no use unless you want to harvest them for jams, jellies, or other recipes. But if you want to encourage blooming and fruit production, simply make sure the tree's basic cultural needs are being met—plenty of sunlight, regular water, and annual fertilizing.
The most common reason for bloom/fruit failure on a mulberry tree is lack of soil nutrients and late spring frost that kills the flower buds.
Common Problems With Mulberry
The most often mentioned issues with mulberry trees involve their messiness and invasive spread.
Stains From Fruit
The fertile, fruiting varieties of this tree are often considered nuisance plants in urban environments, since the fallen fruit will stain pavement and cars, and the stains can easily be tracked indoors. To avoid this, it's best to plant one of the sterile cultivars that don't produce fruit. If you do want the fruit for the benefit of feeding birds or making jams, try to position the tree in an area of your yard where the fruit will not create a mess.
Mulberry trees can spread very easily through self-seeding. Garden areas immediately around a tree may see hundreds of volunteer seedlings, which, if not immediately plucked, can quickly develop root systems that make the saplings hard to eradicate. If you have a fruiting mulberry tree, learn to recognize the seedlings and pluck them out as soon as they appear.
How did white mulberry become so prevalent in North America?
White mulberry trees were introduced to North America by the English prior to the American Revolution in an effort to establish a silkworm industry in young America's burgeoning textile industry. White mulberry is the silkworm's preferred food and the Colonies had land to spare to grow the caterpillar's favorite feast. Unfortunately, this grand scheme failed, and the white mulberry population went rampant due to its ease of germination and spread.
How do I harvest the fruit from a mulberry tree?
Your mulberry tree will be ready to produce fruit after approximately three years, and when it does, you better be ready to harvest. You can expect the berries to be ready between June and August, though that's not to say that they'll all hit peak ripeness at the same time. As a general rule of thumb, the darker the fruit, the sweeter the taste. Be warned that mulberries are very tender and will crush easily. The fruit can cause a sticky mess if allowed to fall to the ground, so be sure to collect it promptly to protect against insects, wildlife, and property damage.
The two methods of picking mulberries are handpicking, which can be very tedious, or placing a tarp or old sheet under the tree and giving it a good shake. You can then collect the unbruised fruit and carefully prepare the berries as part of jelly or jam, or freeze the berries to use them periodically as desired.
How do I remove a mulberry tree?
More than a few gardeners give up on mulberry once they realize how messy and invasive the tree can be. Even if the tree is cut off at ground level and the trunk dug up and removed, small remaining pieces of the root can quickly sprout up again. The best solution is to first cut down the tree and dig up as much of the root structure as possible, then apply a concentrated non-selective herbicide (such as glyphosate) to whatever green growth sprouts up again.
And keep an eye out for volunteer plants sprouting up; any mulberry tree in the neighborhood will spread itself by seeds in the droppings of birds that consume the fruit.
How long does a mulberry tree live?
White mulberry trees (the most common type) are known to live for as much as 100 years, though lifespans of 25 to 50 years are more common for landscape cultivars.
What is the difference between red and white mulberry?
White mulberry has glossy green leaves, while red mulberry has dull green leaves. With white mulberry, the fruit is greenish-white as it first appears, gradually darkening to reddish-purple. On the red mulberry, the fruits are reddish from the start.
How can I use this tree in the landscape?
Mulberry is a medium-sized tree with a densely rounded crown that can make a good understory tree in a big yard. But the fruit can be quite messy, so it's best to plant the tree out of the way, where it can provide fruits for the songbirds that love them but where human feet can't stomp on them. This is not a tree you want hanging over a patio, driveway, or sidewalk.
If you wish to use mulberry as a small shade tree in more heavily trafficked areas, it's best to choose a sterile cultivar that produces neither fertile seeds nor fruit.