Thursday, September 19

The wonder of the mulberry trees

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MORUS ALBA: This species is commonly used by Chinese silkworm farms.

AN acquaintance I met in church recently suggested I write about the mulberry plant. After some reflection, I would like to share about it this week.

A tour of China reminded me of the possibilities of planting mulberry. In many parts of Asia, mulberry cultivation is still flourishing and silk production is a lucrative industry.

Historically, mulberry was planted in Europe and Asia Minor. It was introduced to England from Italy by the Romans for the soldiers. A mulberry tree was also found in Shakespeare’s garden. Apparently mulberry wood was used to make cups to celebrate Shakespeare’s jubilee.  According to records, there is a mulberry garden on the grounds of Buckingham Palace. It was King James I who introduced mulberry and the culture of silkworm farming to Britain.

Mulberry or Morus is a genus of the family Moraceae. There are nearly 70 species of Morus, with 24 species found in China and 19 in Japan. It is planted in many parts of Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. For the Chinese sericulture industry, the four common species in use are Morus alba, Morus multicaulis, Morus atropurpurea and Morus mizuho.

It was not so long ago that silkworm farming was conducted by a company in Sematan, Lundu District. It was a good initiative to set up such an ancient Asian cottage industry there. Despite great efforts and financial commitment to this sericultural project, it was difficult getting good leaves for the hungry worms. This contributed towards the failure of the project.

Mulberry is a fast growing deciduous woody perennial plant with simple, alternate, stipulate, petiolate and entirely lobed leaves. Plants are generally dioecious (with male and female flowers together in one tree), while the inflorescence is catkin with pendent or drooping peduncle bearing unisexual flowers. Male flowers shed pollen for the female inflorescence that have a one-celled ovary. The main pollination agent is wind.

The fruit is a multiple fruit that is two to three centimetres long. Immature fruits are green and red. When they ripen, they turn a dark purple to black and have a sweet taste. The berry actually consists of little closely packed drupes, each containing one seed that is succulent. The leaves are the staple food for the multi-million dollar business of silkworm (Bombyx mori) farming.

Mulberry can be grown from seeds and this often gives a better shaped and healthier plant. Commercial production is mainly by cuttings that strike roots readily. A mulberry tree can grow rapidly to six feet and will display a crown full of leaves. The tree can tolerate draught and having its leaves plucked to feed silkworms.

The Chinese white mulberry (Morus alba) has different leafage, even on a single branch from one shoot. The plant and leaves contain a milky juice that will coagulate into a sort of rubbery form and this is thought to be what gives tenacity to the filament (silk) spun by the silkworm. The European black mulberry tree is slow to fruit – around 15 years after planting.

 

Uses

 

Tea brewed from the leaves is traditional in Chinese culture. I personally use it whenever I feel the need to cool and soothe body heat after eating certain foods or during hot weather, especially working under the hot sun. During my childhood, my 90-year-old grandmother from China would ask me to gather some fresh leaves from the mulberry tree just in front of our cottage to brew in a mug of hot water for 10 minutes. She would sometimes add a cube of sugar.

Mulberry contains anthocyanins, which are soluble colour pigments that are powerful antioxidants and also act as natural food colourants. The various colours (orange, red, purple, black and blue) are used for fresh food. The colour extraction does not affect the vitamins, acids and total sugars. It can be fermented to make juices, sauce and wine.

The main constituents of the black mulberry fruit are glucose, proteins, pectin, malic acid and colouring matter tartaric acids. Mulberry is used to make syrups to flavour or colour other medicine. It is used as an adjuvant for gargles to relieve sore throats. It is also used as a de-worming agent to expel tapeworm, a diuretic and expectorant.

The wood can be used for sporting goods, building houses and making paper.

Growing tips

Prepare the land by ploughing at a depth of up to 40 centimetres. Re-plough to get the soil to a fine texture suitable for young plants.

The basal dressing should be manure or compost – which should be thoroughly incorporated into the mound. Follow up with fertiliser such as urea or ammonium sulphate. Green manure and cover mulching is also practised overseas using weeds and other vegetative waste. Pruning can be done six months later.

Do consider this very useful tree for the garden or on a commercial scale.

Happy gardening. For comments or details send me an email.