How To Correctly Identify a Mulberry Tree (& Look-Alikes)

Most of us are familiar with mulberry jam as a tasty spread on toast or pancakes, and you may have sipped mulberry wine after dinner.

The mulberry tree is most famous for its juicy berries, and the leaves are used in herbal teas as a healthy beverage. 

There are wild mulberry trees that grow near wooded areas. You may have seen their black berries on bike trails or sidewalks. You’ve probably wondered if they’re edible. This guide is written to help you.

What does a mulberry tree look like? The mulberry is a deciduous tree that produces tasty berries in summer. Dense branches form a round crown. The bark is gnarled with burrs and fissures. The leaves are single or lobed with serrated edges. Buds are alternate and open toward the end of May. The flowers are small green catkins.

White mulberry trees are native to China, which produces the most silk in the world. Silkworms only eat leaves from this tree, which supplies every nutrient they need.

Some of the oldest mulberry trees in North America are from this variety. They were introduced during the 17th to 19th centuries for a silk industry that never thrived. Now many of them grow wild.

Homeowners buy cultivated mulberry trees for fast-growing landscape shade and tasty berries.

The foliage is an excellent animal feed with a protein content similar to alfalfa. It can also repel mosquitos.

Mulberry Tree Identification

There are three cultivated mulberry trees in the United States. They are known as white, red, and black for the dominant color of their berries. All are fast-growers. A naturalized white mulberry is considered a weed.

Mulberry Tree Size & Growth Habit

The white mulberry can grow 50 feet tall with wide-spreading branches equal to its height. It is tolerant of drought, pollution, and poor soil. It has a round, open crown shape. 

The red mulberry can grow 40 feet tall. It likes moist soils in open spaces. Its dense branches also form a round crown. It is native to America and found in lowlands & small openings in wooded areas.

The black mulberry is the tiniest, growing up to 30 feet tall and wide. It has a bushy growth often needing wood support. 

The naturalized mulberry matures quickly to a height of 60 feet. It is invasive and tolerates poor conditions.

A large, mature mulberry tree in a field.

Mulberry Tree Bark & Branch Appearance

The mulberry has a short, often crooked trunk. Young branches and twigs range from a brown to orange-brown color. The smooth bark has scattered brown spots and furrowed, narrow ridges.

Older gray to gray-brown bark becomes rougher with deeper furrows. When cut, it exudes a milky sap.

How To Identify Mulberry Leaves

Mulberry leaves are staggered in an alternate pattern along a branch. They are rarely symmetrical with oval two lobes or fleur-de-lys like three lobes.

Veins radiate from the stem with serrated edges on glossy green leaves. There is no uniform shape, and the lobes are unbalanced. 

The black mulberry has a short heart-shaped leaf. The red mulberry has rough leaves with pointed lobes.

Identifying Mulberry Tree Flowers & Buds

Mulberry trees flower during April and May. Small male blossoms have four stamens on long catkins. Female flowers have three or four spiky catkins.

Red mulberry buds are flat and off center. Their scales have black bands. White mulberry buds are smaller, domed, and centered. Black mulberry buds are alternate, dark, and pointed.

The trees bear both male & female flowers for pollination.

Mulberry Fruit Appearance & Taste

The red mulberry has red to black, inch-long berries with a sweet-tart flavor. The black mulberry has black, 2-inch-long berries with the best tarty-sweet taste.

White mulberry fruits are the least tasty. They’re also the smallest, ranging from white to purple in color.

Mulberries are drupes, which are a cluster of tiny fruits, each with a seed. They resemble blackberries.

Purple and red mulberries maturing on tree branch.

What Do Male (Fruitless) Mulberry Trees Look Like?

The fruitless mulberry is a male clone of any variety of mulberry tree. It produces copious amounts of pollen, which can trigger allergies.

It has a dense, round-topped crown and can grow 30 to 50 feet. The leaves can be oval to lobed with no uniform shape. Young branches are an orange-brown color. They bear clusters of inconspicuous light-green flowers. It thrives in any type of soil.

Mulberry Tree Region & Habitat

The naturalized white mulberry grows in all states except Nevada & Alaska. It is found in older fields, roadsides, forest edges, urban environments, and other disturbed areas.

It manages to thrive in inhospitable locations. It is considered a pest in Iowa and Illinois and is banned in El Paso, TX & Phoenix, AZ.

Red mulberry trees are native to the United States. They grow primarily in the New England states in Zones 4 – 9.

The black mulberry is an Asian native and thrives in Grow Zones 5 – 9. It prefers well-drained loamy soil in a sunny location. It is most prized because it has the largest and sweetest berries.

When Do Mulberry Trees Produce Fruit?

They bear fruit from June until September. You can harvest the berries for a full month once they start to drop. To catch the fruit, lay a tarp on the ground and shake the branches gently. Since they are self-fertile, there is no need for a pollinator. 

The berries can be messy, staining clothes and other objects. Birds love to eat them, after which they carry and spread the seeds. Woodland animals are attracted to the fruit also.

Mulberry Tree Look-Alikes

The sassafras tree is often mistaken for a mulberry since their leaves have similar one, two, or three lobes on a branch. However, the sassafras leaves are longer with smooth edges instead of a serrated edge.

Sassafras grows in deciduous forests and is native to New England states. When the leaves are crushed, you smell a spicy scent.

Sassafras vs. mulberry

Some people mistake blackberries for mulberries because their color is the same. Upon closer inspection, you will notice that the berries grow on thorny canes instead of branches. Blackberry bushes are only 3 or 4 feet high. The leaves have toothy edges with 3 – 5 leaflets.

Blackberry vs. mulberry

Related Questions:

What Is the Lifespan of a Mulberry Tree?

  • The lifespan of a white mulberry tree is roughly 25 to 50 years. 
  • Black mulberry trees are hardy and can live over 100 years. 
  • The Red mulberry has the shortest lifespan of around 75 years. 
  • Naturalized mulberry trees are adaptable under the harshest conditions and live 100 years or more.

Are Fruitless Mulberry Trees Prone to Disease?

Fruitless trees are susceptible to mulberry leaf spot, identified by malformed, yellow leaves with black spots. Apply a fungicide to halt the disease. However, if left alone, trees normally survive the condition.

Conclusion

Now you know how to recognize a mulberry tree. If you see a wild tree dropping black berries near a roadside or wooded area, check the leaves first. Then rejoice over your find.

Local nurseries rarely sell mulberry trees. They feel they are a pesky weed. Do a Google Search to find certified nurseries close to your area that will sell cultivated mulberry trees.

StarkBro’s Nursery does sell dwarf mulberry trees. That size would make them more manageable, and they produce the sweetest berries. 

If you find a pesky mulberry sapling in your yard, pull it up with the roots intact. Otherwise, cut it down & apply Roundup or undiluted white vinegar to the stump. It may require several applications.

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