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#19 - Magnificent Mulberry

Red Mulberry is a native deciduous tree that grows to be 40 feet tall and occurs most commonly in mesic (moist) hammocks and floodplains in Florida. At the ELC one of our two specimens on campus welcomes you with its arching branches at the entrance to the imagination station right next to the Barrow Welcome Center.

Common names can be very confusing, especially in the world of plants and insects. Some of the most amazing events in nature reveal themselves only when we take a closer look and often require a more precise, scientific nomenclature, consisting of the genus and the specific epithet, that usually helps avoid confusion. The name Mulberry can refer to many different trees that occur naturally in different parts of the world, most of which belong to the genus Morus, the so-called mulberry genus. Some of these trees found their way into the ornamental plant industry and were distributed all over the world where they sometimes escape cultivation and become invasive, disrupting natural plant communities. Thus, if we want to refer to the only Mulberry that is native to the United States we have to be a little more precise and use the scientific binomial nomenclature, Morus rubra, which translates into Red Mulberry.

The name comes from the edible and delicious bright red fruit that the female plant produces and distinguishes it from some other Mulberries like the invasive White Mulberry (Morus alba) that, as the name implies, bears white fruits. Another feature that distinguishes Red Mulberry from other invasives like Paper Mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) is its light pubescence (hair) on the dorsal and ventral side of the leaves. Other exotic plants with the common name Mulberry that occur in Florida are Indian Mulberry (Morinda citrifolia) and Mulberryweed (Fotoua vilosa).

Red Mulberry makes a fantastic middle-sized tree in the landscape that creates light shade in the summer and great mulch with its falling leaves in the fall, allowing an understory to grow underneath that would otherwise be outshaded by most evergreen trees. While Red Mulberry doesn’t provide ideal nesting habitat for birds, it provides a significant amount of food for an array of wildlife.

If the fruits are desired, at least two trees are required in the landscape – a male and a female. The male flower is an approximately 2” long pollen-bearing catkin (see photo); the female tree produces smaller green compound flowers with white, clearly visible stigmas (the female organ). What is commonly referred to as the berry is, in botanical terms, not a berry but rather many small drupelets, similar to that of a blackberry. Each of the white stigmas belongs to an individual flower that will develop into a small drupe (a fleshy fruit with a pit), called a drupelet.

Scientific nomenclature can seem very complicated sometimes and deterring when we are trying to understand nature, but a proper description of what we are referring to requires a more precise language that avoids confusion, especially with the daily introduction of new exotic species.

If you would like to learn more about real Florida, visit the Environmental Learning Center in Vero Beach and join us on a guided kayak excursion. Call 772-589-5050.

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