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Mulberry names go round and round

2012 June 7

By Ken Moore
Flora Columnist

Citizen reader Mary Ayers recently suggested that I might enjoy seeing a beautiful red-fruited mulberry tree out on Union Grove Road at the edge of a farm field. She wondered if it could be one of the kind imported for silk production years ago.

Well now, thank you, Mary Ayers, for setting me off on quite an adventure – mostly trying to determine what kind of mulberry you have out there in your beautiful countryside.

With fellow nature adventurers Brian and Tony, I went to visit that mulberry last week.

Numerous red and black mulberries were still hanging on a particularly large specimen tree. Smaller trees are easy to view in town hanging over the Frances Shetley bikeway behind Carrboro Elementary School, and it’s not unusual to find walkers competing with the birds for the tasty, low-hanging fruit.

The Union Groove Road mulberry is one mighty big tree. Photo by Brian Stokes

Beneath the Union Grove Road tree I referred to Trees of the Carolinas (Stan Tekiela) and confidently announced to Brian and Tony that we were looking at the native red mulberry, Morus rubra. The description of shiny smooth leaves and black fruit definitely fit our tree. A second reference, Native Trees of the Southeast (Kirkman, Brown and Leopold), also described the white mulberry, Morus alba, which was long ago imported to feed silkworms.

The exotic species is easily distinguished from the native because white mulberry has mature fruit, pink to white. But the description of shiny smooth leaves of white mulberry and rough-to-touch (scabrous) leaves of red mulberry began to confuse me.

Back home I pulled out the current authority, Alan Weakley’s Flora of the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia, for confirmation that black-fruited red mulberry has scabrous leaves and white mulberry sports the shiny, smooth leaves but has fruit that may be white, pink, red, purple and black. Now more confused, I studied all my other references; I found no consistency.

I was relieved to discover the response of my medicinal and edible plants guru, Dr. James Duke, to finding similar inconsistencies: “Authors who seem sure they know the differences between the species have not convinced me.”

I’m curious about what mulberries we do have growing all about us. Among horticultural varieties of white mulberry, Morus alba, var. multicaulis, is described as the silkworm mulberry. Mulberry species and varieties freely hybridize and bird-dispersed seeds produce even more varieties of mulberry. So, while botanists continue to sort all this out, I’m content that the tree out there on Union Grove Road is, indeed, one mighty big mulberry!

Hanging high above the ground, ripe mulberries are more accessible to birds than to humans. Photo by Brian Stokes

When I mentioned mulberry to Tom Marriott, another Citizen reader, he responded: “You’re going to mention Silk Hope, aren’t you?”

Obviously I can go round and round about naming mulberries, but I don’t know the story of Silk Hope. Though planting white mulberries and keeping silkworms content to produce silk must have been too labor intensive to compete with tobacco growing, I can imagine there’s a good story there.

I suspect that a few Citizen readers know the Silk Hope story and hopefully will share it with us.

Email Ken Moore at Find previous Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora.

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