By Julie Christensen
Native to China and Japan, the white mulberry tree (Morus alba) has been cultivated for thousands of years there, where it is the preferred food source of silk worms. In the early 1800s, enterprising settlers brought white mulberry trees to the U.S., hoping to start a silk industry here. Unfortunately, silk production in the United States was prohibitively expensive and the venture failed.
Those white mulberry trees and their descendants can still be found growing wild in parts of the U.S. White mulberries are hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 through 8. They grow in almost any soil, but prefer full sun and well-draining, rich, slightly acidic soil. Some species self-seed prolifically and the plant is invasive in mild, moist areas.
Red mulberry trees (Morus rubrum) are native to the United States and can be found growing in shaded woodland areas and along streams and creeks. Hardy in USDA plant hardiness zones 4 through 8, these trees are more finicky about their growing conditions than white mulberries. They’ll grow in full sun, but they really prefer partial shade and rich, moist soil.
Black mulberry (Morus nigra) is native to Iran and grows only in the mild climates of USDA zones 7 through 10. It tolerates a bit more drought than the other mulberry species, and needs full sun and warmth.
Before you plant mulberry trees, consider your landscaping goals. Most mulberry trees reach a height of 40 feet or so. Although they have interesting, glossy leaves, they don’t have a particularly outstanding form, although weeping and dwarf varieties are available.
Most people who grow mulberries grow them for their fruit, which resembles large blackberries in shape. The fruit is very sweet and mild, with the flavor varying among various species and cultivars. It is typically used as you would other berries – eaten fresh, in pies or in preserves.
Mulberry fruit ripens to white, red, purple or black. When ripe, it falls from the tree. Birds love mulberries, so you’ll have some competition for the harvest. The fruit doesn’t ship well and isn’t produced commercially, but it makes a fine addition to the home garden.
Keep in mind, though, that mulberry fruit is very messy.Because it drops when ripe, it can stain patios, cars and other surfaces. It can also be brought in the house on the bottom of your shoes. If you decide to plant mulberries, place them at the back of the garden, away from foot traffic. Plan to harvest them daily as they ripen to keep down the mess.
Planting Mulberry Trees
When choosing mulberry tree, make sure you buy a species adapted to your region. White and red mulberries will live for up to 75 years, while black mulberries can live for 300 years or more. Most mulberry cultivars are self-fertile, but a few need both a male and female plant. Be sure to ask your producer.
Plant the tree in an area that gets full sun. Dig a hole as deep and twice as wide as the rootball. Set the tree in the hole and fill the hole half-full with soil. Add 2 gallons of water and allow the water to drain. Continue to fill the hole completely with soil, tamping it down firmly with your foot.
Once planted, water the mulberry tree at least once per week while it becomes established. Water it more in dry hot weather, so the soil stays moist 2 inches beneath the soil surface. Once established, water as often as needed to keep the soil slightly moist. If the tree sits in an irrigated lawn, you probably won’t need to supply additional water.
Mulberries produce fruit on new wood. Prune the trees in winter or early spring before new growth appears. Prune mulberries to control growth and remove dead and diseased branches. You don’t need to open the canopy as you would orchard fruits and only minimal pruning is needed.
Fertilize the trees in spring with 1 pound 10-10-10 fertilizer spread under the tree’s canopy.
Pests and Disease
Mulberries are fairly pest- and disease-resistant, although you might notice borers or aphids. Popcorn disease can sometimes afflict white mulberries, which causes the fruit to develop popcorn-like growths. Remove and destroy the affected fruit.
- ‘Illinois Everbearing’ is one of the most adaptable varieties. This cross between a white and red mulberry is hardy in USDA zones 4 through 9. It produces sweet, elongated berries the first year after planting. Grows to 35 feet tall.
- ‘Oscar’ is one of the best white varieties, with delicious raspberry-flavored fruit. Hardy in zones 6 through 9, it grows 30 feet tall.
- ‘Beautiful Day’ is a white variety that produces white fruit. The fruit won’t stain and can be planted closer to the house. Hardy only in zones 6 through 9.
- ‘Noir de Spain’ is a beautiful black variety that has a spreading habit and large, heart-shaped leaves. Hardy in zones 8 through 10.
Want to learn more about growing Mulberry trees?
Red and White Mulberries from Purdue University
Mulberry from NC State University
Julie Christensen learned about gardening on her grandfather’s farm and mother’s vegetable garden in southern Idaho. Today, she lives and gardens on the high plains of Colorado. When she’s not digging in the dirt, Julie writes about food, education, parenting and gardening.