6/1 The Best Berry You’ve Never Tasted

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Mulberries that actually taste great, from a tree by the Louisville Nature Center

Right now the forest is alive with the “beads on a string” whistling of Cedar Waxwings. I wanted to include a pic of what they’re doing – gorging on mulberries, but mostly it’s a way-high-in-the canopy sort of party. This social, frugivorous (fruit eating) bird is here because in some parts of our forest, every tenth tree is a mulberry. Desirable as these mulberries are to birds, most of them are not the native Red Mulberry, Morus rubra.

Chances are you don’t know the Red Mulberry, since it isn’t the weedy tree that grows along sunny backyard edges and fence rows. Growing up I thought that mulberries were just an insipid little fruit that birds pooped all over the car; too flavorless for human tastes. Like most people, I had encountered only Morus alba, or White Mulberry (introduced in the early 1800’s in hope of starting an American silk industry  https://connecticuthistory.org/connecticuts-mulberry-craze/ ). This is also the mulberry that inhabits our urban preserve; its prolific fruits cause an avian feeding frenzy every spring. They literally rain down from the canopy when the wind blows.

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I might never have noticed the low-key Red Mulberry if it hadn’t been for one tree; at the edge of the woods behind the LNC stands a much-branched mulberry tree, bent over by years of bearing the prodigious weight of thousands of big juicy berries. They’re ripening now, and I’ll say without reservation, these are the best wild berries I’ve eaten. I can’t walk by without snacking on them, and giving a few to the captive Box turtles in their pen.

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This tree appears to be a native Red Mulberry by the look of the bark, large size of the leaves, and its graceful arching form. However, I’ve never seen berries like these on any Red Mulberry in the forest. And though I’m not a trained botanist, I noticed an important discrepancy – the leaves of Red Mulberry should be rough above and hairy below, but this tree’s leaves are smooth and hairless. A nice link to ID mulberries:    https://www.extension.purdue.edu/extmedia/fnr/fnr_237.pdf

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It’s very likely my favorite mulberry tree is a hybrid, possibly even a named variety like “Illinois Everbearing”.  A link to help ID mulberries:    https://www.extension.purdue.edu/extmedia/fnr/fnr_237.pdf

So what gives here? It’s the “Asian Connection” again; if you’re a long time reader you may remember that our Eastern forests share a great many genera with Asia. In fact, more than any other two disjunct regions on earth. See blog posts:    8/29 The Global Forest  and  Say Goodbye, Again feb.25

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Locations of the two disjunct floras. The Beringian landbridge, and subsequent climate change, is key to understanding the disjunction.

Quoting from a research study you may or may not want to read:  “Like many North America – East Asian disjunct taxa (Wen 1999), Red and White mulberry are only weakly genetically differentiated (Awasthi et al. 2004) and highly interfertile.” In regular English this means the two mulberries are closely related and hybridize easily.    https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1365-2745.2006.01152.x      

And as is the case with many Asian introductions, the White Mulberry has gotten the upper hand. This is due to several factors, but primarily modern land use practices which favor sun-loving, weedy Morus alba. It also thrives in disturbed open forests like Beargrass Creek SNP. And the uncommon, habitat picky Morus rubra is becoming a victim of “genetic swamping” (for once, a scientific term that easy to understand).

In the Northeast and Canada, Red Mulberry is an endangered species with recovery plans to ensure its continued survival there. But, as with the USFW Service’s Spotted Owl recovery plan that involves killing Barred Owls, the chances of success are low. The “dominant species” horse is already out of the gate, and there’s no putting it back. Or rather, it will have to be put back over and over again as long as government money is available. Much like the situation we’re in with invasive plants here at Beargrass Creek SNP.

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Young native Red Mulberry near trail post #19, with huge, light-gathering leaves.

Though Red Mulberry is a really beautiful understory tree, its low viability in this forest means White Mulberry will continue to dominate. Removing White Mulberry, as some land managers do, seems a losing proposition considering how many are already here – from small trees to huge multi-trunked ones with spreading canopies. No doubt its berries are a boon to Box turtles and other animals besides birds. A more realistic plan is to plant Red Mulberry extensively in the preserve to ensure its continued presence.

But “hybrid vigor” is a well-known horticultural phenomenon that obviously applies to mulberries. Remembering the taste of the berries from my favorite tree, perhaps I should bet on the hybrid!

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9 thoughts on “6/1 The Best Berry You’ve Never Tasted

  1. jc

    I’ve been “caught” snacking from that same tree many times! Many people don’t know mulberries are edible (and sometimes delicious) and give you a funny look if they see you doing it. Same w/service berry trees.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. oneforestfragment

      So glad to hear there are more fellow berry eaters! We taught our kids which are good to eat, but this really bothers some parents. They tell me they’re afraid to encourage it since the kids might think it’s ok to eat any old berry, even poisonous ones. My answer to that – it’s an opportunity for the whole family to learn about edible berries! Very few berries are truly tasty, but very few are truly poisonous as well.

      Like

  2. tonytomeo

    Black mulberries were planted outside orchards to keep birds distracted from the apricots, prunes or cherries within. There were only a few trees that were allowed to get quite large and sloppy. The fruit was pretty good, but not great from those particular trees. I think it was a variety that the birds really liked, and that made an abundance of small berries that would keep them occupied. The garden varieties made bigger fruits that the birds would not have stayed so busy with. There were red mulberries too, but I do not remember them.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. tonytomeo

        Thank you.
        Such tactics were more common back then. Italian cypress were used to attract nesting martens who kept fruit eating birds away. The martens were happy to eat insects. The Italian cypress could be planted out in production areas without making too much shade.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. tonytomeo

        Of course it is not new. It was around long before pesticides were discovered. Even after pesticides became available, IPM was still used because of the expense of pesticides. If pesticides to not kill off predatory insects, IPM can be used in conjunction with pesticides.

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  3. Anonymous

    This reminds me of eating black berrys in my youth. They would grow in a local forest in my neighborhood. That little forest in gone…It was removed because the neighborhood complained about it’s appearance. When they bulldozed it, all of the animals that lived there moved into the neighborhood….causing ALL KINDS of problems. The neighborhood got what it deserved.

    Liked by 1 person

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