Mulberry Tree: Mulberry History And 4 Health Benefits

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Mulberry Tree

Mulberry Tree

Mulberry Tree, from the steppes of Central Asia and the mountain ranges of eastern China, mulberries traveled to Europe and the Americas, bringing luscious dark fruits and priceless silks.

There are 3 main types of mulberry trees: black, white, and red.

Black mulberries ( Morus nigra ) are also known as Persian and are the trees that, on the whole, give the best fruit.

Morus Nigra

 

The berries of  ( M. alba ) come in a range of colors, from white to dark purple, but they tend to lack flavor; according to Alexandre Dumas, they are ‘used for feeding farm animals, which eat them with great pleasure.’

White Mulberry

With these trees, the leaves are important, providing food for the humble but industrious silkworm.

Red mulberries ( M. rubra ) are native to North America and are renowned as ornamental trees, but their berries tend to be tart, and their leaves are unsuitable for silkworms.

Red mulberries

THE NAME

The name Morus comes from the Latin mora, meaning delay.

Mulberries are often called the wise fruit, first by Pliny in his Natural History, as they do not start to grow in spring until the danger of frost is over:

‘Of all the cultivated trees, the mulberry is the last to bud, which it never does until the cold weather is past…but when it begins to put forth buds, it despatches the business in one night and that with so much force that their breaking forth may be clearly heard.’

Later in the seventeenth century, John Evelyn offered more practical advice regarding when it was safe to bring orange trees out from their winter protection in conservatories:

‘observe the mulberry tree when it begins to put forth and open the leaves (be it earlier or later), bring your oranges, etc., boldly out of the conservatory.’

Black and white mulberries are separate species, but in his Metamorphoses, Ovid has a more fanciful origin for the black fruits in the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe.

The two young lovers decided to elope, arranging to meet beneath a white mulberry tree.

Thisbe arrived first but was frightened by the roar of a lion and ran away, dropping her cloak.

The lion, bloodstained from a recent kill, mauled the cloak and then left. Pyramus arrived, was devastated at the death of his love, and stabbed himself.

When Thisbe returned, she found him dying and, distraught, she took his sword and killed herself ever after their blood had turned the white berries blood red.

ANCIENT TIMES

Black mulberry seeds have been found in early Egyptian tombs and were cultivated by both the Greeks and the Romans.

The tree was dedicated to Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, and Horace recommended eating mulberries at the end of a meal as a method of keeping healthy during the summer heat.

As well as eating the fresh fruits, the Romans made mulberries into wine and syrup. Pliny warned that the juice of ripe fruits would stain the hands, but the stain could be washed out with the juice of unripe fruits.

At Pompeii, a black mulberry is depicted in the peristyle of the House of the Bull, and mulberry leaves are included in a mosaic in the House of the Faun.

Black mulberries may also have ancient origins in western Asia and Eastern Europe.

In prehistoric Armenia and Kurdistan, they were dried and made into cakes to eat during winter and reputedly used as currency.

MULBERRIES IN BRITAIN

Mulberries were almost certainly brought to England by the Romans, and, as the fruits do not travel well, trees were likely planted.

Excavations of Roman sites in London found mulberry pips dating from the first century AD.

The trees are long-lived and grow true from seed, so it is probable that trees planted by the Romans, or their seedlings, would have survived until Anglo-Saxon times when they were called ‘moonbeams.

Mulberries often survived in monastery gardens throughout the Middle Ages, and the berries became popular at Tudor banquets.

In the 1551 edition of his Herball, William Turner’s description of the fruit gives the impression that it was already fairly widespread.

The trees quickly develop a gnarled appearance, making them look old beyond their years, but they are also very long-lived.

SILK

Mulberries have been cultivated in China for silk for over five thousand years.

Due to Alexander’s eastern campaigns, the fabric probably arrived in Europe around 330 BC, brought along the Silk Road, with other goods from the east.

Pliny described the fabric as showing the person through it rather than covering and hiding their form. Emperor Tiberius passed a law making it illegal for men to wear the fabric as he felt effeminate.

Virgil, Aristotle, and Pliny all connected the fabric with silkworms. Still, none linked to mulberry Myths regarding the production, including that which said the silkworm made its cocoon in the eyebrows maiden.

The thread is spun by the Chinese silkworm ( Bombyx mori ), eating mulberry leaves.

Silkworm on Mulberry leave

Silk was (and still is) a valuable commodity; in 524, it was sold in Europe for its weight in gold.

The Chinese protected the secret of its production, and heavy penalties were inflicted on anyone caught smuggling the trees, seeds, or silkworms abroad.

The first place outside China to practice sericulture was the Kingdom of Khotan in Central Asia in 140 BC.

According to the story, the King of Khotan married a Chinese Imperial princess, and before the wedding, he warned his bride-to-be that if she wanted to continue to wear silk, she would need to enable him to produce it for her.

Legend has it that she smuggled out mulberry seeds and silkworm eggs in an elaborate headdress. Silk production spread to India and along the Silk Road.

Two Persian monks traveled to China in the sixth century and smuggled silkworms out hidden inside a bamboo cane.

They took them to Constantinople, and from there, the secrets of silk spread across mainland Europe, first to Italy, after the Sack of Constantinople in 1204 forced many artisans to flee, and then to Lyons in France, which, in 1540, was granted a monopoly by François I.

In France, Henri IV (1589-1610) planted mulberries in the Tuileries as part of his building and gardening projects.

Under his instruction, over 15,000 trees were planted in the gardens. Most of these were white and were pruned for maximum silk production.

MULBERRIES IN THE NURSERY

By name, if not by looks, mulberry trees are known to most children from the rhyme Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush.
The rhyme describes several everyday activities such as washing and getting dressed, which the children acted out.
Some versions even included the way ladies and gentlemen walk. There were many similar songs throughout Europe in the nineteenth century, with bramble or juniper bushes also being the plant danced round.
It may be a traditional song, but the women’s prison at Wakefield claims it as theirs.
There was, and still is, a mulberry tree in the prison yard, and they claim that the women prisoners sang to entertain their children as they exercised around the tree.

USES

Elephants have often been used in war, their sheer bulk proving a useful weapon.
What seems surprising is this reference to elephants being shown mulberries, though quite how it encouraged them to fight is unclear:
‘Then the king rising very early marched fiercely with his host towards Bathzacharias, where his armies made them ready to battle and sounded the trumpets.
And to the end, they might provoke the elephants to fight; they showed them the blood of grapes and mulberries.’ (1 Maccabees 6 verses 33-4.)
At the time, it was probably believed incorrectly that the color would have encouraged the elephants to fight because it was the color of blood.
The fruits of the black mulberry make a good strong dye, as unwary pickers often discover.
During the Middle Ages, the juice was used as a dye and made wine or gave color and flavor to wines that needed ‘improving.’
Murrey was a purée of mulberries used in cooking. Gerard says the berries will quench thirst but contain little nourishment.
According to him, the bark, steeped in vinegar, will ease toothache, a cure taken from
Dioscorides also recommended using the leaves and ‘that about harvest time there issueth out of the root a juice, which the next day after is found to be hard.’
The wood is both hard and attractive and is valued for cabinetry and fence posts; according to John Evelyn, it was used by carpenters, wheelwrights, and even shipbuilders.

MULBERRIES BENEFITS

Mulberries share many of the antioxidant benefits of cherries. As sources of vitamins C and K and potassium, calcium, and iron, they are little power packs.

The potassium helps boost energy levels, repair cell damage (those antioxidants again) and boost the immune system.

DIGESTIVE HEALTH

Mulberries are a good source of fiber, one serving to provide 10% of your recommended daily intake.

Fiber aids move food through the digestive tract more efficiently, reducing the risk of constipation, bloating, and cramps.

Historically, a syrup made from mulberries is recognized in the British Pharmacopoeia as an expectorant, a laxative, and an effective gargle for sore throats.

Gerard recommends it, stating:The barke of the root is bitter, hot and drie, and hath a scoring faculty, the decoction hereof doth open the stoppings of the liver and spleen, it purgeth the belly and driveth forth worms.’ Nice…

BLOOD AND CIRCULATION BENEFITS 

More recent research suggests that mulberries are a superfood (isn’t everything? In our view, chocolate is a superfood, possibly the only superfood).
Mulberries contain resveratrol, widely believed to be an anti-cancer agent with healthy heart benefits and anti-inflammatory properties.
It acts as a vasodilator, relaxing the blood vessels and making them less prone to clots which can cause strokes and heart attacks.
Resveratrol is rarely found in foods but does occur in grapes.
The much-lauded ‘French paradox,’ where the French seem to follow an enviable lifestyle gorging on confit, camembert, and Frites with everything but not gaining weight and enjoying remarkable longevity, is credited to the presence of resveratrol from grapes in red wine.
Other sources of resveratrol include blueberries, sprouted peanuts, cocoa, and…ta-dah…mulberries.
The anti-inflammatory benefits are further believed to help alleviate arthritis and arteriosclerosis and postpone Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
It is unusual for fruit to provide a source of iron, but mulberries are an exception. The iron content of mulberries helps enhance the production of red blood cells.
Red blood cells assist in distributing oxygen to vital tissues and organs and improve their function and efficiency.
Mulberries are known to enhance blood circulation, and this, coupled with their anti-inflammatory properties, helps lower blood pressure making one less susceptible to blood clots and strokes.
The bark, leaves, and roots of mulberries (young twigs and roots, not those from older wood) contain diuretic and expectorant properties and reputedly increase insulin levels and decrease blood glucose.
The Chinese recognized this and have long used the extract of mulberry to treat diabetes.
They were drawing on chemical compounds in the leaves, which suppressed the high blood sugar level spike (hyperglycemia) after a carbohydrate-rich meal.
Because mulberry extract has a marked effect on lowering blood sugar, it needs to be approached cautiously.

MULBERRY TEA

Mulberry leaves have tranquilizing effects and have been recommended for tisanes (indeed, in Thailand, we tried some delicious White Mulberry Tea).
In traditional Chinese medicine, it is recommended to improve vision, cleanse the liver, and expel wind.
The mulberry leaf has 25 times more calcium than milk so that it could be helpful for those with dairy intolerances.
Lest you start swigging it back, though, remember moderation in everything. In quantity, it has been suggested that the leaves can cause hallucinations, headaches, and tummy upsets, so maybe limit yourself to a couple of cups.

BONE HEALTH

The presence of calcium and iron, plus traces of phosphorous and magnesium, means that mulberries are good for bone health and may act against the effects of osteoarthritis and other deleterious bone conditions.

EYE HEALTH

Zeaxanthin, a carotenoid found in mulberries and other plants, including saffron, bell peppers, and corn, contributes to their distinctive strong colors and has significant benefits for eye health.
It can reduce stress on ocular cells and prevent damage to the retina, such as that caused by macular degeneration and cataracts.

How to Grow Mulberry Trees

Mulberry trees bear small, unremarkable blooms that become plentiful fruits that look much like slender blackberries.
The berries ripen in stages and drop from the tree as they mature.
The trees are hardy to USDA zones 4/5 to 8, depending upon the variety. They prefer full sun and rich soil but will tolerate part shade and a variety of soils.
They are easy to transplant, salt-tolerant, and perfect for erosion control, not to mention the delicious berries. Some cultivars are wind-resistant and make wonderful windbreaks.
Deciduous trees, all three species attain various sizes.
White mulberry can grow to 80 feet (24 m.), red mulberry around 70 feet (21 m.), and the smaller black mulberry may get to 30 feet (9 m.) in height.
Black mulberries can live for hundreds of years, while red mulberry maxes out at 75 years of age.
Mulberry trees should be planted in full sun with no less than 15 feet (5 m.) between trees, ideally in warm, well-draining soil such as deep loam.
Don’t plant them near a sidewalk unless you don’t mind the staining or the potential tracking in squashed berries (of course, if this is a problem for you, there is a fruitless mulberry variety, too!).
Once the tree has been established, there is very little additional mulberry tree care required.

How to Care for a Mulberry Tree

There really isn’t too much to worry about with this hardy specimen.
The trees are fairly drought tolerant but will benefit from some irrigation during the dry season.
Mulberries do well without additional fertilization, but a 10-10-10 application once per year will keep them healthy.
Mulberries are even primarily free from most pests and diseases.

Pruning Mulberry Trees

Prune young trees into a tidy form by developing a set of main branches. Prune lateral branches to six leaves in July to facilitate the growth of spurs near the main limbs.
Do not prune heavily since mulberries are prone to bleeding at the cuts. Avoid cuts of more than 2 inches (5 cm.), which will not heal.
If you prune when the tree is in its dormancy, bleeding is less severe.

Thereafter, only judicious pruning of mulberry trees is necessary, really only to remove dead or overcrowded branches.

 

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