Mulberry Whine


Before we moved to our current home, I did not give mulberries much thought. I was vaguely aware that people sometimes use them to make wine, and from the nursery rhyme I gathered that dancing around the plant on which they grow was a popular form of entertainment before TV was invented.

That pretty much exhausted my knowledge of the topic. Lately, however, I've been reading up on the mulberry, heeding the injunction to "know thy enemy."

Contrary to the song, the mulberry is not a bush. It's a tree than can grow to a height of 50 feet or more. The one in front of our townhouse, about 20 feet from the window I'm looking through right now, is a white mulberry, Morus alba.

This tree starts pelting us with its "cluster fruit" in June and maintains the assault for most of the summer. "Mulberries ripen over an extended period of time," notes the Web site of California Rare Fruit Growers Inc., " unlike many other fruits which seem to come all at once." This is fine if the tree is in an orchard, but not if it's at the top of a hill in your front yard.

From that position, the tree uses its arsenal of cluster-fruit bombs to dominate the sidewalk, staircase, path, and stoop leading to the house. To keep up with this barrage, you need to be out there with a hose twice a day, washing the mulberries off the pavement and into the shrub beds.

Otherwise, passers-by crush the berries underfoot, creating a viscous, bug-attracting mess that is much harder to remove. Inevitably, people track mulberry goo into the house, and soon the floor is so sticky that your shoes make a thwack thwack thwack sound as you walk across it.

If you miss a couple days of hose duty, you are greeted by a daunting minefield of oozing, recently squashed mulberries on top of a mulberry-paste coating. Even as you struggle to wash away the accumulation of tree droppings, they are being replaced by fresh mulberries.

After enduring a summer and a half of this, I began to wonder why anyone would plant such a tree to being with. I discovered that James I may be partly to blame.

On Botanical.com, Mrs. M. Grieve reports that in 1608 the English king, "being anxious to further the silk industry by introducing the culture of the silkworm into Britain, issued an edict encouraging the cultivation of Mulberry trees." The effort failed, "apparently because the Black Mulberry was cultivated in error, whereas the White Mulberry is the species on which the silkworm flourishes."

Nevertheless, according to the renowned horticulturist John C. Loudon, "the Royal edict of James I…no doubt rendered the tree fashionable." And when British colonists in North America tried their hand at silk production, they brought the right species with them–the one in our front yard.

Although the leaves of the black mulberry are less palatable (to silkworms, anyway), its fruits are said to be tastier. They are also more of a nuisance, however, since (as www.botany.com warns) they "will stain anything they touch."

I suppose I should be thankful that our mulberries are white rather than black. But I still can't get over the fact that someone put the tree there on purpose.

It's not as if I'm the first person to notice the mulberry's drawbacks. Mrs. Grieve concedes that "the Mulberry was far more esteemed in ancient times than at present," and the California Rare Fruit Growers note that "the white mulberry is considered a weed tree in many parts of the country."

The group adds that mulberry trees "should not be planted near a sidewalk. The fallen fruit will not only stain the walkway, but are likely to be tracked indoors."

Still, the tree has its defenders. Last year one of them, Lucy Sharp Gum of Danville, Kentucky, sued her neighbor, Edward Cinnamond, for what the Associated Press described as a "drastic pruning" of her 46-year-old mulberry tree, the branches of which hung over his property.

The trial court ordered Cinnamond to pay Gum $12,500. The appeals court declared the award excessive, noting that the tree was still alive and finding "no case law that allows for damages for loss of consortium for a tree."

To that judgment I would add only that I cannot defend Cinnamond's actions, but I know how he felt.