A Silk Road Runs Through It

Young Mulberry Trees
White mulberry trees first season growth. Photography © Serena Kovalosky

By the end of August my little grove of surprise white mulberry trees were already as high as the windows on the house. They grew fast!

Even more surprising, they appeared in a patch of lawn that had been consistently mowed for over sixty years! How did they survive that long underground? Plus they didn’t seem to mind that we had one of the driest summers on record – while the rest of my lawn had shriveled and turned brown, these plants were actually thriving!

I did some more research and found that the non-native white mulberry (Morus alba) is an ecological threat to local red mulberry (Morus rubra) which is native to eastern and central North America. Due to the proliferation of white mulberry, the red mulberries are becoming increasingly rare. White mulberry trees hybridize readily with the red mulberry which has prompted serious concern for their long-term genetic survival.

When I first began this Eco-Garden Project, I was not concerned with “native” versus “non-native” species. I was simply curious about what I’d find if I let the “weeds” grow in my gardens and yard. These white mulberries were the greatest surprise, but now I’m not sure if I should keep them. Once they start producing berries, birds will spread the seeds far and wide, which will have long-term effects on any red mulberry trees in the area. As I become more aware of how non-native plants can alter a region’s ecological balance, I am realizing I will eventually have to make decisions about whether to keep non-natives.

I was about to pull them all out until I did further research on their history.

Cultivation of the white mulberry began in China to feed silkworms for the silk industry. The trees were later introduced in Europe and eastern United States and other parts of the world as the silk industry expanded.

Why would such a tree be in my backyard in Whitehall, New York?

Whitehall had a silk mill from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. My Canadian grandparents were among the immigrants from Quebec who came to Whitehall in search of “The American Dream” and a job at the Champlain Silk Mills. Then I learned that my property was owned by the mill until 1927. Did they raise their own silkworms? Did they plant these trees? I was amazed at the history underneath my feet.

I didn’t want to remove these trees with such a strong connection to Whitehall’s industrial history but I also couldn’t let them grow into full-sized trees so close to the house. So in November I pruned them to bush-size (they will be actual mulberry bushes, like in the children’s song!) and hope they survive the pruning. I’ll do mure research on Champlain Silk Mills and figure out what to do with them in the spring.

Never would have guessed a “Silk Road” also ran through our little town in upstate New York.

White mulberry trees pruned for the winter. Photography © Serena Kovalosky

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See all articles on this project in my Mulberry Story-Box

CLICK for the background story of The Eco-Garden Project
Click to view The Eco-Garden Project

Sources: Wikipedia: Mulberry Tree; Wikipedia: Silk Mills

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