The mulberry is a deciduous tree shedding its leaves in a particular season of the year. This is a very slender tree having abundant branches and usually grows up to a height of 6 m to 9 m. However, if the tree is not trained when still young, it has a tendency to develop into a bush. The leaves of the mulberry tree have a rough upper surface, while they are pubescent (covered with a layer of fine short hairs) underneath. Usually, the leaves of this tree grow up to a length of 7 cm to 12.5 cm, frequently producing leaves of numerous dissimilar shapes and have one or more lobes. In fact, multi-lobed and lobe-less leaves may often be found growing on the same branch. These leaves generally have irregular shapes and they emerge from the stem shoots or sucker growths. Often they are also produced by extremely robustly growing young branches.
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The flowers of the mulberry trees are held on small, green, overhanging, unremarkable inflorescences consisting of a spike (catkins) that emerge in the axils that have grown in the current season as well as on spikes of matured wood. The flowers of the mulberry tree emerge in 1.3 cm flaking clusters - with the female flowers maturing rapidly into 1.3 cm to 2.5 cm edible fruits that have resemblance to blackberry. From the point of botany, the fruit borne by mulberry trees is not a berry, but a combined fruit.
The pollinated flowers have a fleshy base that starts distending and eventually turn out to be completely transformed in color as well as texture. They become tender, fat and filled with juice. Appearance-wise, every single swollen flower has some kind of resemblance to the individual drupe (any fruit that comprises an outer skin, a typically pulpy and succulent middle layer and a hard and woody inner shell generally enclosing a single seed) of a blackberry. It is hinted that the generic name of mulberry - Morus, has been derived from the Latin term 'mora' denoting 'delay', referring to the delayed development of the fruit from the buds. Another alternative elucidation is that the tree owes its generic name to the Celtic term 'mor' denoting 'black' - referring to the black color of the fruit. However, the specific name of the plant refers to the dark colored fruits borne by the tree.
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The mulberry tree is considered to have originally come from Persia, but has now been naturalized in several regions of Europe where the climatic condition is mild. In effect, since the earliest times, it was widely known in the entire southern Europe and presumed that the Greeks and Romans introduced the species in Europe from Persia. In England, mulberry has been cultivated since the early 16th century and in all probability the Romans introduced it in Britain. Approximately 100,000 mulberry trees were planted in the eastern and midland counties of the United Kingdom during the reign of King James I, and a number of them are still surviving to this day. Initially, M. nigra was cultivated for its wood and fruit and later for nurturing silkworms. In fact, silkworm culture on mulberry trees was introduced for the first time in Italy, where M. nigra was used to feed the silkworm till around 1434. Subsequently, another variety, M. alba (white mulberry) was introduced from the Levant and since then, this species has been preferred for nurturing silkworm.
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During the 16th century, people started using the bark, berries as well as the leaves of M. nigra (black mulberry) for therapeutic uses. While the berries were used to treat inflammations as well as to stop hemorrhage/ bleeding, the bark of the tree was employed to cure toothache. On the other hand, the leaves of M. nigra were used to heal snake bites and as a remedy for poisoning caused by aconite (a poisonous plant belonging to the genus Aconitum). Although mulberry has virtually disappeared from the European materia medica, M. alba or the white mulberry is still extensively used in China as a medication for colds, coughs, high blood pressure (hypertension) as well as a yin tonic to cure the deficiency of internal fluids.
M. nigra or black mulberry has been cultivated since long for the edible fruits borne by the species. This species is planted and frequently naturalized across most regions of Europe, counting Ukraine and into China in the east. The multiple fruits borne by the black or Persian mulberry changes their color to purplish-black when they are ripened. In addition, you will find black, red and white mulberry are prevalent in Iran, Pakistan, north India as well as Afghanistan. In these places, the tree as well as it fruits are known as toot (mulberry) or shahtoot (king's or 'superior' mulberry) - both names derived from Persian. In these regions, people usually use the mulberry fruits to prepare jams and sherbets (a soft drink). In the 17th century, the black mulberry or M. nigra was a very important tree in England as people expected it to be very helpful in cultivating silkworms.
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Precisely speaking, mulberry is indigenous to China and several centuries back, this species became naturalized as well as hybridized both in Europe and America. Indian mulberry (botanical name Morinda tinctoria) is supposedly used by the aborigines of Africa for therapeutic purposes. However, there is no scientific or any reliable evidence to confirm the therapeutic value of the Indian mulberry. People in India use the root bark of Morus alba (white mulberry), locally termed as 'san-pai-p'i'; it is employed as a diuretic to augment the flow of urine and as an expectorant (a medication that enhances secretions from the bronchial tubes and helps in expelling them by means of spitting, coughing or sneezing).
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Currently, Morus nigra or the black mulberry is extensively used for its antioxidant properties. In addition, it is also a very popular ingredient for preparing flavoured syrup used for medicinal purposes and also as a laxative to treat constipation. It is important to note that black mulberry has also been indicated for an assortment of other medical conditions. However, not all indications of black mulberry are backed by scientific evidence regarding its effectiveness and safe use. Hence, more researches are required in this area before one can come to any conclusion regarding the efficiency and safety of the various therapeutic uses of black mulberry (M. nigra).
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In traditional Chinese medicine, mulberry has a long history of therapeutic use and almost all the parts of the plant are used in some way or the other to treat a variety of health conditions. Generally, M. alba, the white mulberry, is used for medicinal purposes, but this species possesses the same therapeutic properties as M. nigra or the black mulberry.
Studies undertaken in the recent past have shown when elephantiasis (a chronic filarial ailment that results in lymphatic obstruction and marked by swelling of the parts affected, particularly the legs and scrotum) was treated using extracts of mulberry leaves in the form of injection, it showed remarkable improvements. Similarly, treating tetanus with oral doses of the mulberry tree sap blended with sugar also showed notable improvement of the condition. While the mulberry trees possess analgesic, emollient and sedative properties in general, the leaves of this plant are antibacterial, astringent, diaphoretic (a substance that promotes perspiration), odontalgic (a medication that provides relief from toothache), hypoglycaemic (a medication that cures hypoglycemia or very low amounts of blood sugar) and ophthalmic. Medications prepared with the leaves are taken internally to treat a number of health conditions, such as colds, eye infections, influenza and even nosebleeds.
Mulberry leaves are harvested soon after the first frost in autumn and can be used fresh. However, they are generally dried before use. The stems of the mulberry tree possess antirheumatic, hypotensive (a medication that helps to treat abnormally low blood pressure), diuretic and pectoral (a medicine for chest/ breast problems) properties. A tincture prepared with the bark of the mulberry tree is used to ease toothache. The branches of this tree are harvested in the later part of spring or during early summer and are dried and stored for use when necessary. The mulberry fruit acts as a tonic on the kidney energy. The fruits of this tree are used in treating tinnitus (a ringing sensation in the ear), premature greying of hair, urinary incontinence (inability to control the flow of urine) as well as constipation among elderly people. However, the primary use of the mulberry fruits in medicines is in the form of a coloring and flavouring agent in other medications.
The root bark of the mulberry tree possesses antitussive, expectorant, diuretic and hypotensive properties. It is also used internally in the form of decoction to treat medical conditions, such as coughs, bronchitis, asthma, hypertension (high blood pressure), edema (accumulation of too much serous fluid in the intercellular spaces in tissues) and diabetes. Like the branches, the roots are harvested during winter and dried and stored for use in future. The bark of the mulberry tree possesses anthelmintic as well as purgative properties and is generally used to get the body rid of tape worms. In addition, extracts obtained from the mulberry plant possess antibacterial as well as fungicidal properties. The leaves of the mulberry tree are also used to prepare a homeopathic medicine, which is used for treating diabetes.
The mulberry fruits, or the berries, have a purple-blackish color and are significantly large and succulent having an excellent balance of sugariness and bitterness that make them the most excellently flavoured species of the genus. In fact, the ripened mulberry fruit encloses approximately 9 per cent sugar along with citric and malic acids. These berries can be consumed raw or even dried. They are widely used in preparing tarts, pies, conserves, jams, puddings or sweetened and squashed as a sauce. The somewhat unripe mulberry fruit is ideal for making pies and tarts. In addition, fruits of the mulberry blend excellently with certain other fruits, particularly apples and pears. The mulberry fruits or berries are occasionally crushed and mixed with flour for making flavoured bread.
While the leaves of M. nigra or black mulberry are inferior to those of M. alba or white mulberry, they are also used for feeding silkworms. In addition, the leaves of M. nigra are used as a fodder for domestic rabbits. Since cattle as well as goats peruse the leaves and shoots of the mulberry plant, it is important to provide protection to the young saplings.
The mulberry tree timber is rich yellow that becomes dark over a period of time to transform into a rich golden brown. The wood of this tree is resilient to water and owing to its hardness, it is used in joinery for articles that are likely to wear away, for lathe work and also in the manufacture of caskets, barrels, cups and snuffboxes.
The mulberry branches that are pruned as well as those that are dead are good for use as firewood.
The bark of the mulberry trees yields a textile fiber in Japan.
The leaves of the mulberry trees yield a yellowish dye that is primarily used for enhancing the polish on silk.
An alcoholic drink is prepared with the fruits of the mulberry tree. For instance, in Greece, the mulberry fruits are fermented for this purpose. People in Devonshire in the United Kingdom, occasionally blend the fruits with cider during fermentation, which provides a pleasant flavour and deep red color to the drink.
The mulberry tree is generally propagated from its seeds. The seeds of this tree germinate well if they are left in cold stratification for about two to three months. It is best to sow the seeds immediately after they ripen or in February in a cold frame. Usually, the seeds germinate in the first spring, but in some cases it may take another year's time. When the seedling have grown large enough to be handled, prick each one of them individually and again grow them in a cold frame for the first winter. The seedlings/ young plants ought to be planted in their permanent position outdoors during the later part of spring or during early summer when the last expected frost has passed.
It is also possible to propagate the mulberry trees through cuttings. If you wish to grow the plant in this method, cut the semi-mature wood along with a heel in July and August. Each cutting should be 7 cm to 10 cm long and be planted in a cold frame. They should be removed from the cold frame and planted in their permanent positions outdoors during spring. While a large percentage of the cuttings survive and grow into mature trees, occasionally they also fail to succeed. If you are making cuttings of mature wood that has grown during the current season, each of them should be 25 cm to 30 cm in length and have a heel of a two-year-old wood. Make these cutting in autumn or early spring and plant them in a cold frame or a bed outdoor where there is enough shade. The three-fourth of the length of the cuttings should be buried in the cold frame or the outdoor bed. It is commonly said that cuttings from older wood, each about 2.5 meters in length, can grow very quickly. It is best to take the cutting in February and plant them approximately 30 cm deep into the soil in a shady and protected location outdoors. Wrap the stem of the cutting with moss with a view to prevent loss of water by means of transpiration. However, ensure that the few buds at the top of the stem should not be covered by moss. The layering should preferably be done during autumn.
Generally, M. nigra or black mulberry is free from invasion by pests as well as any plant diseases. However, they may develop diseased tissue (canker) and they may die from the tip inward (die-back). If you notice a white powdery covering on the underneath of the leaves, be sure that it is a symptom of mildew disseminated by pathogens - Uncinula geniculata and Phyllactinia corylea. It is possible to effectively treat this disease using sulfur dust, karathane, copper oxychloride and imazalil. In some regions, the trees may also be found to develop 'popcorn disease' - a condition wherein the fruits of the mulberry tree distends to appear like popped corn. However, this is only an occasional problem. In fact, this disease continues from one season to another and, hence, the best way to control this menace is to collect the infected fruits and burn them as soon as they develop the disease.
Chemical analysis of the extracts of mulberry has revealed that it encloses coumarins, flavonoids, sugars and tannins. In addition, the berries or fruits of the mulberry tree contain a number of vitamins - vitamin A, vitamin B1, vitamin B2 and vitamin C.
The fruits, leaves, shoots/ twigs and root bark of the mulberry tree are all used for medicinal purposes in various forms - tincture, infusion, mouthwash/ gargle, decoction and syrup to treat a variety of medical conditions.