Multi-use mulberry

By Jean English | Mar 02, 2012
Photo by: By B.navez, GFDL, gnu.org/copyleft), creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Brian Snyder, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, said at MOFGA’s Farmer to Farmer Conference last November that in Costa Rica, mulberry trees are cut back annually, and the green shoots are ground into a feed containing 22 percent protein – good for hog production. The tree trunks also provide posts for single strand electric fencing.

“Maybe we don’t need any corn and soybeans” in the Midwest, Snyder conjectured. A perennial system like the one in Costa Rica would counter the massive soil loss and pesticide runoff associated with conventional corn and soy production.

In the early 1900s, J. Russell Smith visited farmers throughout the southern United States who were raising pigs largely on mulberry fruit. In his 1950 book "Tree Crops", he recommended mulberry as an “excellent food for pigs. To harvest mulberries costs nothing, because the pigs gladly pick up the fruit themselves.” King called mulberry the potential king of tree crops for the Cotton Belt and part of the Corn Belt.

In a document written for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (fao.org/ag/AGA/AGAP/FRG/Mulberry/Papers/HTML/Mulbwar2), Manuel Sánchez says that mulberry leaves and young stems have a good essential amino acid profile, and range from 15 to 28 percent protein, depending on the variety, leaf age and growing conditions. They are also rich in minerals.

“The establishment of this perennial forage is through stakes [cuttings] or seed,” says Sánchez, “and it is harvested by leaf picking or cutting whole branches or stems… The leaves can be used as supplements replacing concentrates for dairy cattle, as the main feed for goats, sheep and rabbits, and as in ingredient in monogastric diets.” (Monogastrics have one stomach; they include chickens and pigs.) He adds that animals initially prefer mulberry over other forages offered simultaneously, “and even dig through a pile of various forages to look for mulberry.”

In one study, reports Sánchez, mulberry replaced grain-based concentrates in lactating cows with excellent results. “Yields did not significantly decrease when 75 percent of the concentrate was replaced with mulberry.”

We Maine gardeners may want to plant mulberries for their juicy purple, blackberry-like fruits, which can be eaten fresh or made into pies, muffins, puddings, fruit leathers, juice, syrup, vinegar, smoothies, crumbles, jams and ice cream. Morus rubra, red mulberry, is the species that’s hardy here (and to Zone 4) and is native to eastern North America.

Fedco Trees offers red mulberry, which grows about 40 to 70 feet wide by 40 to 50 feet tall. Give it plenty of room to spread, says Fedco, and plant it in full sun and in rich, moist soils. Grow more than one tree to ensure good pollination. Once you have a few plants, you can propagate more from seeds or stem cuttings.

This is a good “grow your own” crop; the fruits are so perishable that you’re unlikely to find them at a market. If you harvest your own, eat them within a day or two or cook, freeze or dry them right away.

According to Steve Brill (wildmanstevebrill.com/Plants.Folder/Mulberries), young, unopened mulberry leaves can be eaten in spring if they’re boiled for 20 minutes and the water is discarded. “This water, the unripe berries, uncooked young leaves, and mature leaves are toxic and mildly hallucinogenic. While they won’t kill you, they'll give you a terrific headache and an upset stomach. The primary hallucination is that you’re so sick, you're going to die. However, you'll probably eventually recover.”

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