Mulberry season is finally here!
Mulberry is a flowering tree known for its berries, which are often used for culinary purposes. Mulberries belong to the genus Morus, and the term is used to describe many different species. The most common species of mulberry are the red, white, and black mulberry, Morus alba, rubra, and nigra. However, the color in the species name does not necessarily reflect the color of the berries the plant produces, it refers to the original cultivar. All mulberries can produce white, red, black, and even purple berries that can be both sweet and tart. Mulberry is also known for its traditional medicinal uses, especially in Chinese medicine.
Mulberries were first cultivated in China in about 2500 BCE as food for the silkworm. While as early as 4000 years ago the Chinese were documenting the medicinal uses of the plant in their classic medicinal textbook, the Huang Di Ba Shi Yi Nan Jing it is only recently, mulberry has garnered attention in the west.
Nowadays mulberry is considered a superfood, like kale or almonds. The berries are rich in antioxidants, fiber, and protein. Studies show mulberry can be effective in controlling blood sugar in diabetics, helping lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and having anti-aging properties.
Distribution of Red and White Mulberry
While the white mulberry is native to Asia, the red mulberry is native to the US. The white mulberry was first imported to the US in the 1600s to promote the American silk industry. Both species can be found growing throughout the US both under cultivation and in the wild.
White mulberry is found in 48 states the exception being Nevada and Alaska.
Red mulberry is found in the eastern US and Canada. It can be found as far north as Vermont and Ontario and as far south as Florida. Its territory stretches west as far as Texas and South Dakota.
In Canada, it is endangered from hybridization with the imported white mulberry.
How to distinguish between Red and White Mulberry
If you are in a region where both varieties of mulberries grow you will want to know how to distinguish them. The first factor to consider is the environment. Red mulberry is a shade-loving tree. It does not tolerate direct sunlight. White mulberry is much less discerning about where it grows. You can find it growing along fence lines and in urban areas. While you may associate mulberry with the nursery rhyme, “All around the mulberry bush” mulberry is in fact a tree. The red mulberry is slightly smaller, usually topping out at 55 feet tall, the white mulberry can grow to heights of 66 feet or taller. As you investigate further you will find there are differences between the leaves of these two trees.
The leaves of the red mulberry are larger, ranging from 4-10 inches with smaller more pointed serrations on the edges. Dark green, they have a rough, dull surface and the underside is lightly hairy with small veins. In contrast, white mulberry leaves are shiny, bright green, with rounded serrations more like teeth. They are hairless below with the exceptions of the distinct main veins which may have hairs. These distinctions are important as the leaves are commonly used medicinally. It can often be difficult to determine the species of mulberry because of the hybridization that is occurring between the two species.
Another way to determine the species is the fruit. Red mulberries grow singly from the stem, while white mulberries grow in clusters. But color is not necessarily a distinguishing characteristic. Both species have white fruit when the fruit is immature. It then darkens. The red mulberry tends towards a darker purplish red. The white mulberry can be lighter in color pink tending towards reddish.
White mulberry has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a range of conditions including:
- Colds and Flu
- High Blood Pressure
- Sore Throat
While the leaves are most commonly used, the root bark, bark, and stems are also used in many remedies.
The leaves can be used in either teas or tinctures. Young leaves can be eaten as well, as long as they are cooked. Mulberry leaves do contain a latex sap that can be irritating to some people and cause stomach upset. You can also purchase the leaves as a supplement. Mulberry leaves have been shown to help regulate blood sugar, and help with heart disease by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol. An easy way to enjoy the benefits of mulberry is to make this delicious and refreshing tea.
2 TBSP mulberry leaves
- 4 cups of water
- Honey to sweeten
Simply add either fresh or dried mulberry leaves to a pot of water and slowly heat for 10-15 minutes. Strain the leaves. Add honey to taste.
Branches, Twigs, and Root Bark
While the leaves are the most commonly used part of the mulberry tree, other parts are used traditionally. The branches and twigs are said to help with arthritis pains and to help stimulate circulation to the extremities. The root bark is said to help with coughs, colds, and flu. It is also said to help reduce fever.
Perhaps best known for the sweetness of its fruit it is important not to neglect the health benefits of the berries. Used traditionally in jams, pies, and wine mulberries are full of anti-oxidants, iron, and vitamin C. Eaten either fresh or dried mulberries are a healthy and delicious snack.
Mulberry has been valued since ancient times, not only as a food for the precious silkworm but also for its culinary and medicinal uses. It is easy to see why such a plant has been memorialized in legends and children’s rhymes. Whether you chose to enjoy a handful of dried berries or relax with a cup of delicious mulberry tea, you can be confident you are following a long line of people who appreciate the health benefits of this amazing plant.
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