Margaret Lauterbach: The mulberry tree's luscious fruit

Squirrels and birds mean you'll seldom get at taste, but at least the berries won't make a mess.

Special to the Idaho StatesmanJune 19, 2014 

When we bought our house in 1971, we inherited an ornamental crab apple tree - ornamental for about two days, then a nuisance the rest of the year. It harbored codling moth larvae that lowered themselves to the ground on spiderlike threads that were quite unpleasant to walk into when mowing or passing the tree.

After it began dropping large limbs, we had the tree removed, and I ordered another tree that would bear more useful fruit. The new tree is a mulberry, fast-growing and a treasured shade tree.

Have you ever eaten ripe mulberries? They're luscious, if you can beat birds and squirrels to them. Last year I only ate one or two, but this year we managed to get a mouthful.

In my childhood, I had my mouth, hands and clothes stained from eating mulberries on the University of Colorado campus. Not wanting birds dropping staining excrement on freshly laundered clothes on the clothesline, I bought a mulberry tree that would bear white fruit.

The tree, now about 4 years old, bore a large crop last week. Birds hadn't found it, and although squirrels nailed the small amount of fruit it bore last year, they hadn't been into it this year.

A few days later, no ripe fruit was left on the tree and the fallen fruit had been cleaned up by furry or feathered helpers.

Mulberry trees may grow to 60 feet in height, but like most fast-growing trees, the wood is weak and may break in ice storms or strong wind. These trees, native to China, are hardy to USDA zone 3B (minus 30 to 35 degrees F.). Once established, they can tolerate some drought. Pollen may cause allergy problems. They do not need a pollinator.

Some regard mulberry trees as messy, but in this city of squirrels, there isn't much chance of messy dropped fruit.

Propagation is by softwood or hardwood cutting or seeds. Seeds in ripe fruit are edible, no more bothersome than strawberry seeds.

WINTER'S RAVAGES

USDA upgraded our area from 6 to 7 last summer, just in time for a winter that saw zone 6 temperatures (coldest was minus 7 degrees F.). We weren't supposed to get below zero in zone 7.

My Buddleias (butterfly bushes) have lived through winters that saw mercury drop that low before, but this past winter, several trunks and limbs of those shrubs died. Those shrubs did come back from the roots, although I've heard of a few Buddleias having been killed in the Valley.

Roses around the Valley have taken a hit this spring too. A lot of the damage has been caused by bacterial cane blight. Anju Lucas, head of perennials at Edwards Greenhouse, advises pruning afflicted canes very low, even to an inch or two above soil line (provided you've planted the shrub with the graft below soil surface). She says her own roses so pruned are coming back and blooming rather quickly.

Mortality of different species and genera (genuses) of shrubs around the valley leads some plant experts such as Lucas to suspect shrubs died of a lack of water rather than freezing. We often have prolonged droughts in fall, and last fall saw erratic rainfall. October was dry until the 28th, then we got a deluge of three-quarters of an inch of rain. A few other sporadic rains and snows fell before January.

Our shrubs and trees, especially broadleaved evergreens and needled trees, continue to transpire water that is not being replaced by natural precipitation. Lucas thinks we ought to continue to water at least monthly during those dry spells.

Once the weather turns cold, with freezing nights, we can't leave hoses hooked up without risking water pipe breakage. If we just unscrew hoses from faucets, ice will clog them unless we drain the hoses each time they're used when temperatures are above freezing. Better that than dead shrubs and trees.

Margaret Lauterbach: melauter@earthlink.net or write to Gardening, The Idaho Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707

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