Growing an Illinois Everbearing Mulberry in zone 4A

Mulberries are fantastic trees. They grow quickly, they can provide pollen for insects, and they produce abundant fruit. On top of all that, the leaves are also edible.

Many northern generations were saved by eating high protein mulberry leaves and/or feeding them to livestock (and high protein hackberries….but I digress.)

There are, of course, a few downsides. Mulberry fruit drops on the ground. This can stain driveways, houses, and shoes. If your mulberry tree is near your house, birds will drop purple droppings on your car and other structures. The tree also gets huge and branches can/do fall off. Since we have many acres in order to site this tree, none of the above dissuades me from planting mulberries.

In fact, I have been in love with the mulberry since my sophmore year in college when I happened to run into one on my walk home. There I was, walking the streets of Minneapolis when I saw the worst thing I could imagine. Someone had thrown a bazillion blackberries on the ground – who would waste blackberries!!!?? I stared in awe for a while when I realized that the berries were dropping from the tree. Blackberries that grew on trees?

This was all pre-internet, and though I had wandered and sampled many wild things in my youth, I grew up in zone 3b and had never encountered a mulberry.

So I did what any rational person would do and I started eating the berries. I ate them until I was full (with the lifelong appetite of a teenage boy – that means I ate a lot!) Then I turned myself around and headed back to the University library to discover what I had just eaten. It didn’t take too long before I knew the tree was a mulberry. Hmm….

I have been thinking about that tree ever since. As I have wandered through much of the forests in zone 4, I have come across 3 mulberry trees in the wild. They have much smaller berries and only 1 of the 3 had quality berries. I took seeds from that tree and did successfully grow them into seedlings. Unfortunately, they did not survive the wilderness/winter.

And that is how I happened upon the Illinois Mulberry.  It is supposed to be hardy to zone 4, though I have seen reports that it experiences significant dieback. Oh global warming – where are you when I need you???

I ordered a bareroot tree this spring and potted it up in a 5 gallon bucket (with holes drilled in the bottom.) It quickly sprung to life and I tended to it in our backyard until June 10th. I decided it was time for it to head to the farm. The reasoning for the move was that I need/want it to get it’s roots firmly anchored before the ground freezes and it might need a few months to do so.

I feel the same about the pear I have waiting in the backyard, but it has been slower to wake up and I am planting it in a harsher location, so I need it to be more robust before it can head out to the wilderness.

The red maple tree taught me an important lesson about tree caging. 4 foot cages do not keep deer away. So I now have approximately 7 foot cages (two 4’s tied together with overlap.) These larger cages blow over in the wind or are tipped by fiesty deer.

Fruit trees are just too edible to wildlife. The plan for this mulberry was to plant it near the little lake – far enough out of the flood zone (which we have been monitoring over the last 2 winters) but close enough that the ground is wetter than the rest of the sand plain. It is also planted to the south of the tree line to offer some wind protection. I will be wrapping this tree during it’s first winter (at least the bottoms – to protect against mice/rabbits.) Then we just have to wait.

In the meantime, I have come across a new hardy mulberry called Trader Mulberry. I have been in contact with the grower – the mother tree grows in 4a in North Dakota. I will be buying two of these soon — one for the other side of the little lake, and the other behind the pine shelter belt.

If the wildlife can be patient (you now they can’t!) then these trees will grow up to provide so much valuable fruit to all sorts of animals. Birds especially love mulberries. And even though they are not insect pollinated, the berry juice can provide calories to honey bees if nectar is scarce and they can/do collect the pollen if other sources are not adequate. We are planning for “all scenarios” with our bees. We want the bees to find the majority of their needs on our property. If one plant should fail that season, we want/need a back up.

Holding our breath until the day the trees outgrow the cages – and the predation risk!

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2 thoughts on “Growing an Illinois Everbearing Mulberry in zone 4A

    • duffymeadows says:

      Thank you for asking! The winter of 2018/2019 was long and brutal – many consecutive days below -20F and a few at -43F. The mulberry survived but has not yet leafed out. Buds are swelling.

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