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Mulberry trees: A race with squirrels for sweet fruit

Mulberry detail
On the wall of Majid Jahanbin’s office at Paradise Nursery in Chatsworth hang photos of long, fat mulberries lined up with tape measures to show their size -- a gardener’s equivalent of big game trophies. The juicy berries from the Pakistani-Afghan mulberry tree, his biggest seller, can reach more than 3.5 inches.

Mulberry Kris TopazMost mulberries ripen in spring, and by now most growers have either collected the short-lived fruit or seen it get eaten by squirrels. For Kris Topaz, it’s the latter. Shortly after listing her 11-year old mulberry tree as ready for picking on the Altadena RIPE harvest-sharing website, she removed the offer. The squirrels had arrived first.

“This is the first year I had a problem,” she said. “New mulberries ripen everyday, so for about six weeks I would have four cups of them a day if it’s a good year. They’re very sweet and don’t have seeds, so they’re heavenly. But now the squirrels come every day and have lunch on the new ones.”

Mulberry ripeningThe tree in her Altadena yard is a volunteer that she transplanted from her former home in Pasadena. Besides the sweet, inch-long fruit, she enjoys the landscaping benefits: She likes the privacy that the tree gives.

"It’s deciduous, so in the winter I get sun and in the summer I get shade and beautiful leaves," she said.

There are three varieties (and numerous hybrids) of mulberry: white, which is native to eastern China and famously used for silkworm fodder; black, which is native to western Asia and was a staple for the ancient Egyptians and Romans; and red, which is native to the eastern U.S. and eaten by American Indians. Leaves and berries are edible, the bark can be made into paper and the twigs are used in basketmaking.

Of the three, the white mulberry (Morus alba) gets the tallest, reaching up to 80 feet, and like the others it grows quickly. It also has a reputation for being an invasive plant, destructive to footings, pipes and sidewalks. It's banned in some places. It is also considered a threat to the native red mulberry because of hybridization.

The white weeping mulberry is smaller. It's popular as a landscape plant. The name comes from the umbrella shape it gets as the branches sag. The fruit is not as tasty as the western Asia black varieties, however. Those who don’t want to deal with dropped fruit can get fruitless varieties.

All mulberries can be kept low, said Jahanbin of Paradise Nursery, down to 10 feet or so through aggressive pruning -- usually done during the winter dormant period. Just be careful not to trim off new branches where buds are forming.

“You trim it back to the nubs closest to the trunk," he said. "If you clip off the branch with all the green buds, the tree will die.”

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— Jeff Spurrier

The Global Garden, a look at our multicultural city through the lens of its landscapes, appears here on Tuesdays. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook page for gardening in the West.

Photos: Kris Topaz and her black mulberries in various stages of ripening. Credit: Ann Summa

 
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