When a small grove of white mulberry trees sprouted in my backyard during a rewilding project, my research led to the discovery of their link to the silk industry established in China over 4,000 years ago. The leaves of the white mulberry (Morus alba) are the primary foodsource of the Bombyx mori silkworm, which produces the finest silk in the world.
The discovery of non-native species always sparks questions of how and why they arrived in the U.S. The white mulberry story is a fascinating one, offering a glimpse into the culture of American entrepreneurship.
White mulberry trees are native to China. As the silk industry expanded throught Asia, the Middle East and Europe, the trees also spread as a parallel market opportunity of cultivating silkworms for a growing industry. Silkworms arrived in Virginia as early as 1613 to encourage silk production in southern New England, South Carolina and Georgia but it wasn’t until the early 1800s when the industry really took off in the U.S. White mulberry trees were promoted as a highly lucrative cash crop not only for farmers but for individuals who could grow trees in their backyards and raise silkworms. Legislators passed laws to encourage the planting of white mulberry trees and authorized a manual on sericulture. See Bombyx Mori and Americans
In Connecticut, a “mulberry craze” fueled dreams of wealth, a market frenzy and eventual collapse. See Connecticut’s Mulberry Craze
Silk farming proved to be far more challenging and although silk mills proliferated particularly in the Northeast, many of them ended up importing raw silk from Asia.
Descendants of the imported white mulberry tree, as well as a few long-lived original trees, are sprinkled throughout almost every state in the U.S., along roadsides, and in backyards, old fields and forest edges. Unfortunately, it is slowly outcompeting and replacing the native red mulberry (Moris rubra) through hybridization and potential root disease. It is considered an invasive species. See https://www.invasive.org/alien/pubs/midatlantic/moal.htm
This is why I almost pulled up the white mulberry in my yard. But something told me to keep it for educational purposes, at least for now, and I ended up receiving a grant to further research the plant and its history and present my discoveries in an online Story-Box and a series of artworks and presentations.
I am still getting to know this plant and am learning that it is fondly appreciated by those who enjoy its summer berries. I look forward to eating my first mulberry and experiencing a mature tree and will continue to share my discoveries.
See all articles on this project in my Mulberry Story-Box
Do you have a White Mulberry tree in your yard or town? Please share stories in the comments below!
Research Sources and Further Reading:
ConnecticutHistory.org – Connecticut’s Mulberry Craze: https://connecticuthistory.org/connecticuts-mulberry-craze
University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Bombyx Mori and Americans:
CLICK for the background story of The White Mulberry Project
In 2023, Serena Kovalosky was awarded a New York State Rural & Traditional Arts Fellowship for the White Mulberry Project, administered by the Arts Council for Wyoming County in partnership with the New York State Council on the Arts. Funding for this project is made possible with support from the New York State Council on the Arts with support from the Governor’s office and the New York State Legislature.