I have a love/hate relationship with fruitless mulberry trees—in fact, I have a love/hate relationship with the individual outside my house. It shades a big south-facing window quite nicely in summer, then drops its leaves so we get some much-needed sun in winter. It gives me a bird’s-eye view of birds, when the local robins and finches and chickadees hang out in it, and it provides a customary perch for Himself, the Anna’s hummingbird that rules our front-porch feeder. When we’re lucky and get the right sequence of weather in fall, the whole street glows a glorious yellow, between the trees and their runway carpet of fallen leaves. It has a friendly, leafy presence, and aesthetically, the row of them on our street is one of the best things about it.
It’s also giving my little front garden more shade than I’d prefer—picky, picky, I know, but it’s a shady lot in general. The leaves are big and sturdy and while they make OK mulch, we really have to keep them raked when they fall, or they’ll smother some small plants. They’re also slippery when wet. But these are just the standard price for having a tree. My big complaint is with its sex.
Fruitless mulberries, like a lot of fruitless tree cultivars, are all male clones. They make decent street trees and, in hot places like the Central Valley and Nevada, they’re used to shade yards and buildings too. One common strategy is to pollard them, cutting most of the branches every year, starting when the tree is young, back to the same few points. This creates knobs from which lots of fairly straight, densely leafy shoots grow (it originated as a way to harvest firewood without killing trees). You have to cut back to the top of this knob every year, and allow only a year or two between cuttings for safety, because the branches that grow out are weakly attached and will fall if they get large. Planetrees and mulberries tolerate this treatment well.
Male trees, especially wind-pollinated ones (which usually have small, inconspicuous flowers) dump lots of pollen into the air. I can sit on my front porch and watch the pollen curling off the catkins like cigarette smoke in spring. Fetching, but allergenic as heck. It infuriates my sinuses, which in turn abuse the rest of me. I’m not alone—cities in Nevada and Arizona have forbidden planting fruitless mulberries, and olives too. Same problem—and I love olives.
You can find dried white mulberries, called “tut” (pronounced “toot” in Farsi), in Middle Eastern groceries; they’re mildly sweet. Fresh, they’re even better, but they don’t travel well so you rarely see them for sale.
There was a red mulberry—the fruiting kind—near my house when I was a kid. We used it as a playhouse; its branches drooped to the ground in a wide arc and there were a couple of handy limestone boulders under it for furniture. We climbed it too, and ate lots of the lovely fruit it bore. We’d come home happy and quite purple-stained. Sometimes a bird would feast too and leave a thank-you on the laundry drying on lines in the yards. I suppose I’ve inherited my love/hate relationship with mulberries from my mother.