Plant of the Week
Latin: Morus alba
As a child I never realized the mulberry fights my brothers and I participated in
were made possible by one of the many get-rich-quick schemes that have plagued farmers
In the case of the lowly mulberry, the scheme involved feeding mulberry leaves to hungry silkworms and then waiting patiently while the money poured in. The white mulberry is a 50-foot tall deciduous tree from China that is the traditional food for silkworms. Because of many attempts to establish silk production sites, it has become widely naturalized in both North America and Europe.
Silkworm culture, perfected in China over three centuries ago, made its way to India in the 6th century when a Chinese maiden smuggled worms out of the Middle Kingdom, hidden in her hair. From there it spread to Persia and Italy. In the mid-17th Century, King James I attempted to establish a silk industry in Virginia Colony by requiring all planters to grow 10 mulberries for every 100 acres of their holdings.
With the early success of tobacco growing in Virginia Colony, silkworm growing failed to become established. In the 1750s, it was attempted again in Georgia, but again failed to take root. While raw silk was produced in both early attempts, the quantity produced was never sufficient to establish a self-supporting industry.
The catalyst for the biggest push in silkworm growing occurred as a result of a government report published in 1826, which detailed the imbalance in trade that was occurring between the import of silk and the export of grains. Because of this trade deficit, Congress commissioned a report, published in 1828, outlining the potential for a domestic silk industry. J. H. Cobb, a Boston lawyer and experimenter, had successfully produced silk and published an account of his work in 1829. Congress liked the little publication and ordered 2,000 copies to encourage the fledgling industry.
Paper calculations made silk production look very profitable. Cobb went so far as to propose that road improvements and school teacher salaries be funded by planting mulberries on public lands. About that same time, a new mulberry, the " multicaulis mulberry," was introduced from France, which was reported to be the mulberry used in the Chinese industry. When it was first introduced, trees could be obtained for three to five cents each. A short decade later, trees were selling for $2 to $5 each. Speculation was rampant and nursery growers were busy selling trees to each other at ever escalating prices without any apparent effort at actually producing silk. In 1839, the bubble burst and the value of the multicaulis mulberry dropped to almost nothing, probably on the news of the hostilities that were brewing in China over its decision to shut down Great Britain’s opium import trade. After the Opium Wars, China was forced to create more favorable trade agreements with the West and the price of silk plummeted. Thereafter, all attempts at establishing an American silk industry fell by the wayside.
Mulberries, especially the fruitless selections, are still grown by Midwestern nurseries. In 1997, Fruit Gardener magazine designated the edible forms their "Fruit of the Year." As a mid-size shade tree, mulberries are fast growing, broad spreading and quick to provide shade. They are relatively resistant to disease and insect problems and are drought tolerant once established. But, lacking flowers and having little fall color, better shade trees are available.
By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - October 1, 1999
The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.