Whenever I have walked to or from the subway this last week, a particular patch of pavement stands out because it has been dyed a ghastly blackish purple. This is where the sidewalk runs beneath a mulberry tree, a medium sized deciduous fruit tree which produces copious quantities of black multiple fruit. Ten to sixteen species of trees are accepted by botanists as true mulberries. The three most commonly known species are black mulberries (Morus nigra) which were exported in great number from Southwest Asia to Europe, the red mulberries (Morus rubra) which grow wild in Eastern North America, and the white mulberry (Morus alba) which has been domesticated since ancient times in China as food for silkworms. The different species readily hybridize into fertile hybrids so I have no idea which sort I am walking under every day. The Mulberry trees give their name to the Moraceae, the mulberry family, which includes figs, banyans, breadfruits, and Osage-oranges.
Mulberry foliage is the preferred food for silkworm larvae (although the caterpillars will also tolerate foliage of the Osage-orange and the tree of heaven). An ancient Chinese legend relates that Lei Zu, the wife of the Yellow Emperor (himself the mythical progenitor of Chinese culture), discovered silkworm cultivation as she was drinking tea beneath a mulberry tree. A silkworm wrapped up in a cocoon fell into her tea. She removed the cocoon from her beverage and was amazed at how the fiber unwrapped around her fingers as a lovely thread.
Mulberry leaves, sap, and unripe berries contain 1-Deoxynojirimycin, a polyhydroxylated piperidine, which acts an intoxicant and mild hallucinogen (and produces nausea). However when mulberries ripen they turn black and become edible. Mura nigra and Mura rubra allegedly have the tastiest fruit which is said to resemble blueberry in taste and appearance when cooked into pies and tarts. Cooked mulberries are rich in anthocyanins, pigments which are useful as natural food colorings and may have medicinal value.
Mulberry also gives its name to a lovely purple pink which resembles the color of mulberry jams and pies. The word mulberry has been used to describe that particular shade since the 1770’s. I remember it fondly as a Crayola crayon which I always used up before the others (although apparently the color was discontinued in 2003–so today’s children will have to make do with less poetic purple pinks).