A conversation with Eliza Greenman, fruit explorer and Germplasm Specialist at the Savanna Institute, and Scott Brainard, Tree Crop Breeder at the Savanna Institute and post-doc at UW-Madison, about the history of mulberries and current research to develop improved varieties for agroforestry systems.
JASON FISCHBACH 0:00
This is a podcast about new crops. You’re gonna love it. Join us on The Cutting Edge, a podcast in search of new crops for Wisconsin.
Eliza Greenman 0:10
Mulberry is not studied in the United States. It hasn’t been studied for over 100 years. And so it’s never had anybody in recent history, like championing it to be a fruit. But hopefully that’ll change soon.
Steffen Mirsky 0:43
Hello, and welcome to another episode of The Cutting Edge, a podcast in search of new crops for Wisconsin. My name is Steffen Mirsky, and I’m an Outreach Specialist for emerging crops with UW Madison Extension. This episode is part one of a two part series about mulberries, a crop that I was personally very excited to learn about. It’s a fascinating crop with a long history of cultivation overseas, but little known and often misunderstood in the US. In many parts of Wisconsin right now, you can be walking or riding your bike and see the sidewalk below you stained with mulberry fruit from an overhanging tree. The trees are all around us, spread by birds and often thought of as a weed, but they have been paid little attention by researchers and eaters in this country, despite having delicious and nutritious fruit. In this episode, I talked to Eliza Greenman, Germplasm Specialist at the Savanna Institute, farmer and fruit explorer to get a better understanding of the historical and global context of this forgotten fruit and why it’s been so neglected. Also joining me is Scott Brainard, Tree Crop Breeder at the Savanna Institute and postdoc at UW Madison, to talk about his research and breeding work to improve the crop for agroforestry systems. In part two of the series, I interview the founders of the only large scale commercial mulberry farm in the United States. Eliza alludes to this farm towards the end of this episode. You won’t want to miss it. I hope you enjoy both of these episodes as much as I did.
Eliza Greenman 2:32
My name is Eliza Greenman. I am a Germplasm Specialist with the Savanna Institute. But I’m not located in Wisconsin. I’m actually located in Virginia, where I have some some leased land and I operate a nursery and some orchards that consist of mulberries and other fruits, but mulberries really are a backbone. And that business is called Hog Tree. And the whole thing is to try and help feed livestock off of perennials.
Scott Brainard 3:08
My name is Scott Brainard and I am I also work for Savannah Institute as a tree crop breeder. And one of the crops that we are interested in is mulberry. I also am a postdoc at UW Madison in Dr. Julie Dawson’s lab in the Horticulture Department where my research focuses on hazelnuts, another perennial woody species with a lot of potential in the Upper Midwest.
Steffen Mirsky 3:40
So can we just start out with a brief overview of what mulberries are, and why they’re cultivated around the world.
Eliza Greenman 3:48
Yeah, mulberries are, in the same family as fig. And they’re a tree that gets usually pretty big. I mean, usually between 20 and 40 feet tall. But that, of course, varies across the line. And it’s, it can be it’s traditionally produced, either for fruit or for leaf. It’s what I believe to be the oldest agroforestry crop, in continuation in the world. And that’s for leaf harvest for the making of silk. But it’s also been known to produce like the backbone have some, you know, I guess fruit products in more Caucasian countries like Turkey, and it looks sort of like a blackberry Sometimes, though, they vary in in color, so there’s white, black or dark purple, and then some variation in between. Sometimes you see a light purple, sometimes you see a red and they taste between like a really can taste like a fig kind of like very sweet cloying all the way to pretty acidic. And interesting. So, yeah, to me they are ultimately like, probably a blackberry substitute, where people probably would choose to eat them over blackberries most times because they’re often seedless. But yeah, most people just don’t really know about them.
Steffen Mirsky 5:35
So can you explain a little more like why the mulberry has been cultivated for so long in other parts of the world?
Eliza Greenman 5:41
So in Asia, the guess is right now are that it has been cultivated for like leaf production specifically in Asia for like 10,000 years. It has to do with, so it’s for the silk industry, for as long as silk has been around, mulberry has been at the backbone or the basis of it, and it has to do with the domestication of the silkworm. And so they’re thinking that you know while wild harvesting silkworms back, you know, way back, like say 8000 9000 10,000 years ago, was absolutely going on, they probably were starting to pay attention to which trees the silkworms were really into. Mulberry specifically silkworms, primarily feed off of mulberry, white mulberry that is, so Morus alba. But it’s one of the few crops that was intentionally it’s kind of like the first silvopasture crop in a way, if you consider silkworms to be your livestock.
Steffen Mirsky 6:12
So can you help us understand why the mulberry doesn’t have that same history of cultivation in the United States?
Eliza Greenman 7:04
So we in the United States have a red mulberry, Morus rubra that’s native. And we also have a native silkworm, whose Latin name I don’t escapes me at the moment, but that has not ever been used commercially ever in the in the history of either US soil culture or around the world once the US had been colonized. It was left alone because it was virtually unimproved, you know, as a totally wild species. And we and over in Asia, they you know, they’ve been doing this for 1000s of years already. So you for starters, like, there’s not a ton. I’m sure there is some, but there’s not a ton of information available around indigenous use of mulberries for silk, and rearing the basically untamed silkworm. That would be truly fascinating if anybody if that ever surface, but from my research, it hasn’t yet. But so the mulberry industry is purely like mostly all countries, but the United States or both North America. And so the white mulberry, which is often considered invasive, and the United States now arrived with the colonists in the Virginia Company to Jamestown, in like 1607, or 1609. So they are truly as invasive as I am, or you know, as any white person walking around in the United States. They came at the exact same time because it was decreed by King James that, you know, these colonies were to produce silk for the crown. And so, ultimately, like, there were a lot of different iterations of people trying to produce silk for the crown or for, you know, to make it big, and like, there’s a lot of silk prospecting going on. And this happened up through the late 1800s. But there’s, there’s various reasons why it failed. But ultimately, like it was pretty low quality. It couldn’t it couldn’t keep pace with like Italian silks and French silks and Spanish silks. And so it’s it’s a combination, I think of absolute, uneducation surrounding the silk industry. Like if you read the old books, you see people were trying everything like they were trying to feed silkworms, like poplar, and, and osage orange and all these other tree species is, and the worms just ultimately failed. And so yeah, I think that in the United States, it’s not that we can’t grow mulberry trees, because we absolutely can you know, they’re everywhere, basically. But it’s just that we I don’t think ever really got serious about how to grow them and what it took.
Steffen Mirsky 10:25
Yeah, Scott. So I’m wondering like what piqued your interest in in working with mulberries for agroforestry systems? Like why did you choose to work with this crop? And what does it have to offer?
Scott Brainard 10:42
Yeah, well, Eliza can say a lot more about its compelling traits within agroforestry systems. But I think in general terms, it will, it falls into at least a few different possible niches definitely has sort of fodder potential, both in terms of its fruit and leaves, especially market fruit potential, in terms of the fruit itself. And it also is one of these tree species that, you know, we are we’re working on, I would say, at least in this country, an unusual set of species. All of these crops are have long histories and are popular in some places around the world. But in terms of the US, of course, this is a relatively uncommon fruit. But it grows quite well and quite vigorously, with very little management or input. And I think that’s those are pretty important characteristics when thinking about broad scale adoption and cultivation. The people who own and make decisions about what happens on a lot of the Midwestern agricultural landscape don’t necessarily have a ton of horticultural knowledge nor a desire to make massive investments in some more sensitive crops. So see, I think both of those things, it’s got very interesting sets of traits that make it well disposed to several different agricultural practices. And is also not super hard to grow.
Steffen Mirsky 12:47
Yeah, yeah. In terms of like, let’s take a little dive into the botany of the crop. Can, I know Eliza, you, you mentioned that there’s a lot of Morus alba in the US, which is not native and comes from Asia. Is that the species you’re working with? Scott, which, species are you working with?
Scott Brainard 13:13
Well, I think at this point, we’re interested in like, like with a lot of sort of alternative tree crops, we’re interested in the entire genus, as well as all the interspecific hybrids that could possibly be produced. And so when you look around the landscape, alba’s is very aggressive. And, you know, a lot of what you see is either alba or rubra-alba hybrids, it can be pretty challenging to identify, you need a pretty skilled eye to identify the morphological differences. And we’re actually working to try to develop some molecular markers to aid in that effort. But yeah, so there’s definitely just pure alba that has particularly promising cold adaptation, that we’re going to trial in Wisconsin. And then in terms of selecting from populations that are already growing in the Midwest, that those will almost certainly include alba in their genetic background, as well as rubra.
Eliza Greenman 14:28
And I’ll add to that, Scott and say that Morus rubra natural range doesn’t quite, I mean, it might make it to a smidge of Wisconsin, but generally speaking, it’s thought to not necessarily be there except to be a little bit too cold. But what’s growing in Wisconsin right now, especially, like, let’s say in the Savanna Institute’s farm in Spring Green, and what’s growing there is pure alba. And that’s because they in like the 1830s, that area had, or I guess, at least in the 18, mid 1800s, I won’t get specific. That area had also silk prospecting going on by the a lot of the people that were moving into the area. And so they sourced Siberian mulberry. So that’s a pure alba from Russia. And that’s what is primarily in Wisconsin today, is these, these pure, yeah, pure alba Russian mulberry plantings. But what we’re working on is, as Scott said, like, we have been, well, I’ve done a pretty wide sweep of all the good cultivars I can find that are out of Ukraine. For at all that produce, these are for fruit by the way, the ones that were so right now we’re working with there are ones for fruit and some for leaves. But back in the day, the Wisconsin ones were just for leaf production, like that came from Russia. And they produce fruit, some produce fruit too, they’re dioecious. But so that means that we’re, we’ve got a pretty large assembly now of genetics from the Ukraine, from northern Japan, from China, some from China, some from Korea, just you know, the colder parts of those areas along with some from like, you know, the northeast and, and places like Vermont and places like that, that are colder, that produce for berries. And we’re excited to give those a go, plant them out next year and give them a trial and see if they actually can handle it. But also the goal is to try to put in some rubra into the mix, because there are some different nutritional profiles associated with rubra and alba. And so, rubra is a lot higher in polyphenols. And so, just to like, try and get, you know, the best bang for the buck, is to get like something that produces pretty large fruits. But those fruits also have a high content, fat content from the white mulberry side, and a high, like, you know, polyphenol content from the red mulberry side. So trying to trying to go for the best of both worlds.
Steffen Mirsky 17:51
Are mulberry varieties that are good for raising silkworms. Are they also good for as fodder? Would you say it’s kind of the same qualities that make it good for both?
Eliza Greenman 18:05
Yes, there are some, I would say that most silk cultivars are male. And that’s just because like, when you when you have a diecious species, so male and female, a lot of the times the female of that species grows more slowly, or isn’t as vigorous and that’s because it’s got a burden to produce offspring, you know, every year. And so just that’s really the only difference like nutritionally speaking the leaf, the leaf material is generally equal, you know, if, if you’ve got a good cultivar and besides and also by the way they can switch sex, like, that’s something that’s happening more and more with this crazy climate stuff is like, you know, longtime females are turning male or vice versa. And so the leaf, the leaf composition really doesn’t change much. But the it’s just it purely just matters from a level of vigor. And if you are like machine harvesting, you know, acres and acres and acres of mulberry leaves as like an alfalfa substitute, you’re gonna want something that’s, you know, going to produce more leaf. And so generally those are probably going to be male. But for the rest of us that you know, you had like a silkworm hobby at home. You also happen to love berries, then yeah, go for it.
Steffen Mirsky 19:46
Okay, so, if you were to grow a mulberry in an agroforestry system, can you kind of paint a picture of what that would look like?
Eliza Greenman 19:55
Yeah, well, I mean, there’s a bunch of different designs, but I’ll give you a historical case in United States and then and that’s for fruit and then I’ll just talk about the leaf aspect of it a little bit as well. So, in the southern United States, there’s, there’s a phenomenon that happens. Sometimes well, it’s it’s not just in the southern United States, it’s all over. But it’s in the boundary where white mulberry has introgressed with the red mulberry. And those hybrids sometimes produce what’s called an everbearing mulberry, which is a mulberry that just produces on new wood continuously throughout for a, you know, extended period of time. And in warmer areas, you get a longer season of this production. And so, in the early 1800s, there was this variety called Hicks that was discovered, it’s called the Hicks it’s actually called the Hicks Everbearing. And it was planted widely throughout North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, some in Virginia, in order to help rate feed hogs. And so this is before of course, livestock are raised in indoors. And so what that looked like where the trees were spaced 40 feet apart at much once mature. And they, the hogs would be in under the mulberry trees from in, let’s say, April, like late April, let’s say North in North Carolina, because this is what I’ve seen remnants of this orchard in North Carolina, late April, let’s say or early May, through August, and the hogs would be in that orchard. And then one, let’s let’s see it say one tree, one mature tree was able to fatten five hogs in a season. And that’s just because it prolifically bears fruit. I have the Hicks thanks to David, Dr. David Shields who clued me in and who’s with the University of South Carolina. And he and the Hicks for me, I have an eight year old tree that last year or a year before last produced one quart of mulberries a day for 90 straight days. And that’s in Northern Virginia. And so if you and that’s an eight, you know, that was a seven year old tree. And so if you think about like a 20 year old tree or a 40 year old tree that’s on a 40 by like that’s got a 40 foot canopy in diameter, like that’s a ton of fruit every day. And it sort of works in that symbiosis because mulberries can take like, unlimited amounts of hot nitrogen. And so they also put, they would also put chickens in there. So it was like a feedback loop of the mulberries were getting heavily fertilized, they’re producing brand new wood at it at a huge pace. And dropping mulberries as a result of the fruit they paired this with, by the way was persimmon, which would start bearing in late August and go through January. And so these, these hog and chicken orchards would primarily consist of mulberries and persimmons, both of which we’re working on with the Savanna Institute and Tree Crop Improvement Program. Yeah, to basically like, cut the feed costs severely. So the amount of corn you’re putting into these, these eggs was drastically reduced. And so that’s the idea for, like, poultry operations, pig operations. And yeah, I would say poultry and pigs in general because ruminants I’m sure she can eat them and eat the berries easily. But it’s mostly the poultry in the room in the in the pigs that really utilize the berries for for what they are in the fruit and the fruit dropped and you know, so unfortunately, the Hicks is not hardy enough for the Upper Midwest. But there are other Everbearings that are like the Illinois Everbearing which may or may not be hardy enough for the Upper Midwest. We’ll see, I have some very good specimens I’m sending to Spring Green this winter. But they it’s worth fruit exploring for like, you know if you’re in early August, late July in Wisconsin and you see a mulberry tree that’s got fruit on it, take note, because usually usually mulberries fruit within a very, you know, within a three week window or so. And so if they’re out of their normal fruiting window, like, that’s, that’s probably a valuable one for people to use in silvopasture operations basically.
Steffen Mirsky 25:27
Okay. So how would it work in an agroforestry system to use the leaves as fodder? Would somebody have to cut branches down to feed? Or can grazing animals just graze on them? Or how would that?
Eliza Greenman 25:46
Yeah, so there’s a multitude of systems for this, depending on where you are in the world, these days, and how much labor you have. But mulberry is designed to be cut, like that’s part of its evolution, as being cultivated by humans for so long, is that like, you know, that song that has to do with the mulberry bush, here we go around the mulberry bush. It’s only called the bush because it’s cut back to its coppiced, basically, you know, annually, or, or every other year, in order to, yeah, take the leaves and feed them because the leaves have like, high nitrogen, you know, between, like, let’s say between 13 and 29%. Protein, they have high digestibility a lot of minerals, like everything can eat mulberry leaves, even we can even eat some mulberry leaves of some some cultivars that and that work is by Eric Jonesmeier, but there’s some people that will maintain a pollard so that’s like, maintaining, they’ll cut all the branches off of what looks like a fist at say, like, you know, four feet, five feet, two feet, something like that. And they’ll just drop the leaves and let you know, they’re smaller livestock eat them. Or they’ll let, like in France, I saw a scenario where everything was like a one foot pollard. And that they, you know, they cleaned it up in the wintertime and like hollered, cut, prune everything back to the fist. And then they would let the cattle in, you know, in like late in like July, they’d let the cattle in, and the cattle would eat all the leaves off the tree, in the end all the grass in between the rows and you know, all that stuff. And then they would close it off. And then in September, they’d let the cattle back in and they’d eat all the leaves off the trees again, and let them rest until the next season. So you can do that. We have a real problem with deer in the United States. And so you can’t do these these lower unprotected methods without deer fencing or some form of deer fencing or in tents deer control, because the deer will mess up the clock that’s necessary for getting adequate regrowth and maintaining health and these trees. So that’s that’s a big caveat there is anything that is to be coppiced or low pollinated is in need of deer protection. But what I’ve been seeing in China is because China has mandated a lot more research go into perennial fodder, rather than trying to import so much green and they have started to they plant very dense rows of mulberry like it just looks like a four foot tall or five foot tall mulberry forest just so many like plantations so so many stems like maybe, I don’t know 5000 per acre or something or more and they run a corn silage cutter and their silage chopper and are literally just turning the mulberry either they cut it, it chops it, blows it into the back of their truck. And they’ll either go feed those leaves directly, or they’ll ensile them. And so that’s, I think probably the best hope we have or you can drive them too if needed for for future hay or something. But I think that’s probably the most applicable situation to the US given our farming methods.
Steffen Mirsky 30:04
Yeah, so Scott, I was wondering if you could go into a little more detail about your project and the varieties that you’re testing for Wisconsin? Like, where did your where the germ lasm that you’re working with come from? What is your research process? What is the data collection look like? And kind of what is your overall timeline for the project?
Scott Brainard 30:27
Yeah, I can say a few things. And then probably Eliza can chime in here as well. Maybe the first thing I’ll just described as the the general breeding work that we’re trying to do at Savanna Institute for a number of different crops. And that is to build large populations of around 2000 unique genotypes, and grow those on an as homogenous a research field as possible. Often that I’ll take up, you know, 15 acres or so. So there’ll be some spatial variability. But these are like unique seedlings. So we want them to be growing in as uniform and environment as possible, along with clonal replicates at the parental lines that gave rise to them. And we’ll evaluate those for number of years, and genotype them. And using that combination of performance data, as well as genetic data, build what we call predictive models to help us select individual plants that would be worth testing in a sort of wide area variety trial, parents of future crosses, screening subsequent progeny families, before entering them into a breeding orchard. So that’s our sort of general approach for across all species. And for some species, we’re farther along. For some target crops, we’re farther along in that process than others, primarily due to the ready availability of improved germplasm. So we were talking before the recording, Steffen, about the hazelnut planting outside Spring Green. So there, we were lucky to have university partners who have already identified parental varieties that do really well in Wisconsin. And so we planted the progeny of those. With mulberry, we’re, we’re sort of one step removed from that, where we actually we don’t have any, you know, there isn’t at the moment, and your researchers in the Upper Midwest who’ve been studying mulberry for years and years. So we have to do that work first. So what we will be doing is planting grafted variety trials of some of the old adapted material that Eliza mentioned earlier. And she can say more about the exact provenance of those trees. But the idea will be to plant those relatively limited number of genotypes relative to the really large seedling populations we want to generate, in order to make sure that they do survive the winters they do produce well. And once we’ve evaluated that, sort of like initial parental variety trial will begin to make controlled crosses. I guess the only other thing I would say and then I’ll ask them feel free to jump in as we these are dioecious species. So we need to do two additional things with with mulberry. One is to identify sex length markers that will help us pull out females at the seedling stage prior to actually planting an orchard and then seeing whether or not they’re male or female. So if you’re grafting a cultivar you know that’s that’s not an issue. But if anyone was ever interested in growing seedling populations of mulberry that would be important. In any event, though, we’ll also need pollinators. So we’ll need male trees that can be planted in a sort of designed orchard context in order to provide adequate pollination. And so for that, we are going around the the region going around southern Wisconsin and looking for it basically testing out routing and protocols for for softwood and semi softwood cuttings off of male trees that are sort of prolific pollinators, and are just sort of get ahead of the curve. They’re like, we know that that’s going to be a need down the line. And so we might as well start figuring out how we’re going to efficiently and sort of scaleably propagate colonizers for these orchards eventually.
Steffen Mirsky 35:31
Do you have any insight on that yet? How, like, what the most effective propagation methods are?
Scott Brainard 35:40
Well, I’ll let Eliza comment on that. Because I know she’s done a lot of work on it, but herself, but we do think that there’s going to be a genotypic component. And at least I would suspect that without any evidence to back me up necessarily seems like it’s generally the case is you see genotype specific responses to pretty much any propagation technique you can, you can imagine. And so, what we end up growing will be a, you know, a function of plants we want to grow, along with what we are able to grow. But yeah, when it comes to the specific methods, and also the sort of characteristics of the trees that we’re going to grow in this initial variety trial. I’ll defer to Eliza.
Eliza Greenman 36:34
Yeah. So in terms of propagation by rooting, Morus alba, is generally able to be rooted by cuttings. But the hybrids are a mess, just a thick mess. So everybody seems to think a mulberry just roots no problem. But that’s not really the case. The hybrids, either they root, or they absolutely don’t root. And so I would say they skew towards not rooting well from cuttings. But it truly depends, I think, and as Scott said, like, it’s going to depend how much alba is in that hybrid cross, like, in Virginia, where we’ve had white mulberry since the sixth early 1600s, like a lot of our mulberries have a large amount of white in them, and so are alba in them. So they’re able to root red mulberry, we’re actually not sure how well it roots, because finding pure red is very, very difficult due to the high introgression of the two species. Most people that have red, there was a, like an herbarium DNA analysis done a few years ago, and of the herbarium species for Morus rubra, I think 95% of them were actually hybrid. And so we’re not sure if that roots well or not. The guess is that pure Morus rubra probably does root well, just like pure Morus alba. But then some people say Morus rubra won’t root, but that’s probably because they’re looking at hybrid.
Steffen Mirsky 38:28
Is there a good way of distinguishing rubra from alba?
Eliza Greenman 38:35
Generally, well, the answer is no, because most of the rubra are hybrids. And so you have no basis to start from with it. But alba is easy-ish, in that well, alba and high amounts of alba hybrids are easier because the leaves are glossy, they don’t have any tomentose feeling. Some root pure rubra has a calcium crystal in the leaf that comes across as a tomentose sandpapery feeling. And alba does not have that. And that’s also part of the reason why alba leaf is better fodder tharubra leaf for livestock. But, yeah, I mean, you’ll see like definitive people saying, you know, this is how you can tell or this is how you can tell, but they’re not. They have no clue. Like back in the day when cultivars were being named in like the 1800s, you know, the the great botanical wizards like Liberty Hyde Bailey, and Bartram, you know, even further back like they were calling. Like, for instance, Hicks is a hybrid and they would call it Morus rubra. And that was because the bud has a shield shape, which is from rubra. But the leaf has in the leaf has no tomentose qualities whatsoever. And so really identifying by eye is, it’s just not possible because we don’t have a baseline. We don’t yet have a baseline for Morus rubra, though, there’s good hope that a Morus rubra in the sticks of Alabama has been sequenced. And so potentially, we’ll have some markers to test for, to determine if other specimens are pure rubra or not.
Steffen Mirsky 40:45
Okay, so just to go back a minute, Scott, where are you in the process of this project? Like in terms of your timeline?
Scott Brainard 40:52
Um, we are, I would say in the, in the early stages, like I was, like I was saying, I mean, you know, for certain crops, things are just further along in the Midwest and in general, and we’re able to build on years of work that people have already done. So we are, like, probably a season away from actually planting those trials. The good thing about mulberries that it is more precocious than some of the other species we work on, like chess, not or persimmon. And so on the one hand, yeah, we are sort of starting this project, we will be the first people to really do this in the Midwest. So we don’t have that legacy to build on. But it’s a bit more of a of a precocious crop. So Eliza, do you want to say a bit about the material that we’ve selected to plant at, you know, sort of initial selections for evaluation in the Upper Midwest, and when, for various traits, we might begin to be able to get phenotypic data, I mean, for certain traits, fodder, and that can come quite quickly.
Eliza Greenman 42:19
Right, so we have about 30 cultivars that I’ve selected from the upper reaches of the world, the colder areas. And, of those I have, I’ve grafted in my nursery in Virginia, everything in like, you know, lots of copies of each. And so what I’ve been seeing so far is some, so the precociousness comes through in one because of grafting like so, just because of that, like a lot of these trees are going to have either have fruited this year, or are currently fruiting this year, or will fruit by next year. Or, yeah, they’re basically going to fruit in the next two years. It’s pretty rare to see a grafted mulberry tree that doesn’t fruit in two years. So that’s the timeline for that is, I would say buy what we need to get them. I mean, they’re gonna be quite large when I transplant them and send them to Spring Green this year. So yeah, I mean, we could very well make some crosses as early as 2024, but very likely, it will be 2025 that we did that, because we do need to assess a season of cold for them. And in order to score their cold hardiness because they very well just might die completely or back to the ground or back to the graft. But for leaf fodder, it’s an analysis and so unfortunately the old leaf fodder lab I used to use has gone out of business. So it’s a matter of how much quantity of leaf matter material you can get. The your most recent estimate I was given from dairy one which will analyze mulberry leaves for their fodder potential requires eight ounces of leaves, which is a lot of leaves. And so you’re looking at either going to the mother tree to get the leaves off, or you are going to wait till you’re able to harvest half a pound of leaves. And so that’s going to be several years for the ones that that we’ve acquired just through grafting because they’re you know, the mother trees are in northern Japan or Ukraine.
Steffen Mirsky 44:59
Great Oh, Okay, so I wanted to talk a little bit about mulberries for fruit production. And I’m wondering, why do we not see mulberry orchards on the landscape right now or fresh mulberries for sale?
Eliza Greenman 45:20
Yeah, I mean, well culturally speaking mulberries are not part of the American culture in terms of eating them as fruits. And that goes back to them being deemed a pest. And, and that, so like, if your children are playing under mulberry tree and eating a ton of mulberries, and they come back purple, or they’re tracking purple into the house, and from their shoes, or your driveway is purple, then that’s seen as a problem. And so, literally, like so many, probably very potentially viable commercial mulberry cultivars in in waiting, just never made it because they’re considered a pest. And so that’s one of the major things mulberry is not studied in the United States. It hasn’t been studied for over 100 years. And so yeah, it’s never had any anybody in recent history, championing it to be a fruit, though the, the nutritional panels on it are quite good. And so and they taste good. So that’s one reason is that we just have no idea how to grow mulberries in a way that would emphasize like a u-pick, or something like that. The other thing is that mulberries the United States are all wild, pretty much outside of you know, the small amount of, of graphs that exist from a long time ago. They’re, they’re all wild and they do not hold up very well to packaging. So like putting them in a container. They they squish pretty pretty easily. And so if you have a quart container of mulberries, you’d end up with like a quarter of that quart would be like a juice kind of thing. So clam shells and like, the ability to hold these fruits doesn’t really match up with what like hold the blackberry these days or raspberries, just because they are more juicy. And that’s but that truly is a breeding thing, like a lot of the several cultivars that I’ve gotten out of the Ukraine and Russia holed up under weight. So like, they’re just like any other blackberry. One of one of the cultivars that does this is called Black Prince. And, and so there’s promise there, it’s just that they need to be worked with, but they’ve just got a long history of being abandoned and abused. And nobody’s looked into it really, outside of just a few inquiries. Like the closest this ever came was the Tennessee Valley Authority had a tree crops breeding program in the early 1900s. And this was it was a huge endeavor that they were out to do. And they had collected specimens of mulberry from all over that had large berries that were everbearing you know, that had promised. And we’re just had them open pollinating basically. And they were selling seedlings and shipping them out all over the place. And that’s basically that got shipped out when World War Two hit, like all that work went down down the drain. Because, you know, up was the rise of Black Angus cattle and chemical fertilizers. But that was it. And some of those trees still exist. My one of my first exploring partner Taylor Malone in Tennessee, has found quite a few like very, very nice, promising mulberries, but that was it. And so really, yeah, I think they just never had a chance to be anything but like a trap crop for cherries, really is mostly what you see it referred to in the 1800s and early 1900s. There’s always something better.
Steffen Mirsky 49:53
Are you aware of any commercial farms out there? Like in the United States mean?
Eliza Greenman 50:00
Yeah, um, there’s, I’ve well off the top my head, there’s just two that I had I know of one is Murray Family Farms and Bakersfield California, where Steven Murray is a fruit explorer and has a huge collection of fruits that are good for, you know, zone nine, basically like. And so, and that’s true also where, you know, some of these cultivars kick in, like Pakistan, you can see Pakistan is a mulberry that’s got a very long fruit. And it’s hardy basically like zone eight B and up, reliably Hardy zone eight B and up. And that like, can stack in a clamshell, well, like no problem. And so he has a farm stand off the interstate, there in Bakersfield. And it’s, it’s a huge farmstand, like it’s like a whole rest stop on an interstate. And so you can buy mulberries in season there for purchase. And then there’s another one that I can’t think of the name of the farm. It’s also in California. And they are growing the the mulberry cultivar called Himalayan and that is being grown as a u-pick. And so the trees are just being kept short. And people are able to walk through and pick all they want and leave and I actually am not sure if Himalayan holds up very well. But this seems to be having success. So good on them. But that’s really it. I mean, I’ve been collecting cultivars in Virginia that I think stand a really good chance for you pick. One of them is called Siam Jumbo. And it’s marginally hardy here but it roots so readily in fruits so preciciously from cuttings that I think they can be an annual crop, and basically just stay around three feet tall all the time. But it’s coming to, it’s sort of a dream for me to have a commercial mulberry endeavor. But you have for me, it has to be integrated with livestock. Because livestock not only clean everything up. But if you can get livestock rotating through your system, you can get humans rotating through your system once the once the demand hits.
Steffen Mirsky 52:43
Are you familiar with, like how they’re grown for fruit production overseas? And like, can you describe how they’re grown over there? Like what what are the orchards look like? And are they mechanically harvested? Or?
Eliza Greenman 52:56
Yeah, um, generally, they’re not mechanically harvested. They are, I mean, some are so. So basically what you see is an orchard that would be like trees, or maybe 20 by 20, or 30 by 30 on a grid. And they are like, then there’s just tarps that lie in the ground. And you see, sometimes there’s somebody in the tree shaking each branch and shaking each mulberry down to the ground. And more, so it’s becoming more often now. But that they have like, backpack tree shakers that’s basically like a pole that that shakes. And so they’ll hook that and it has a hook at the end. And so they’ll just like hook a branch and press the button and it’ll shake, up and down, up and up and down. And to just get people from having to climb in the trees. So yeah, they shake him down to the ground, they’re collected and tarps and, and that then in Turkey, then they’re dried or turned into molasses. And those are the two prime crops generally. And so they don’t have to worry about like juice going everywhere or whatever, because they’re immediately put on like a rooftop, you know where there’s no humidity in Turkey. And they baked down real fast. Or they’re put in a vat, and, and cooked down until they turn into a molasses which is delicious. One of my favorite things that I’ve ordered is called I’m not going to remember it right now. But what it is is they string so they take walnuts and they put like they string walnuts like you do popcorn for Christmas or something they decorate a Christmas tree. Like they’ll just string walnuts. And then they take that string of walnuts and they’ll dip it into a mulberry molasses mixture, and, and they just keep it in, they’ll raise it up and then they’ll dip it again, let it dry, let it dry, you know, give it and so you can buy that. Which is an incredible snack. Like it’s it’s not quite like a finished molasses it’s still at the it’s I’d say it’s like halfway through or something. But it’s awesome. It’s really great. Yeah, sure. Oh, it’s called churchkaya. Okay, yeah, just for the present if you want solely perennial snack foods that I often seek out.
Steffen Mirsky 55:39
Okay. And yeah, what else have you done with mulberries besides just fresh eating?
Eliza Greenman 55:47
I generally will. So I eat the seeds from my nursery. And by the way, you can, right after you collect mulberries, if you use them, then the seeds are, you can plant them immediately and they’ll come up they have no dormancy requirements. But um, so I yeah, I generally just use them and turn them into a syrup that goes into cocktails or cooking things or whatever I haven’t. I’ve attempted a mulberry molasses. And I think that so like, I’ve attempted this molasses making venture before with apples, like combining historical knowledge with like what we have. And the key with apples is that you can’t make a molasses from an apple that has a lot of acidity, because then the molasses will be just very, very biting. And it’s not like necessarily Well, you know, a molasses substitute, like a sugar cane molasses substitute and the same goes for mulberry, like you want to use the sweetest, least acidic mulberries you can to make a molasses. And I don’t have a lot of that around me I have like I have a lot of mulberries that are very berry like, which I love. And but with some of these cultivars that I have that I’m starting to grow that are surely sweet. I’m so in some of them growing from Turkey. I’m looking forward to getting into that a little bit more to and also like you think for wines and such like juices areas. Like all that’s delicious and has like great. Great health benefits.
Steffen Mirsky 57:37
Cool. Yeah, so we’ll we’ll start wrapping up here. Do you want to say anything about Hog Tree Farm?
Eliza Greenman 57:46
Sure. Yeah, Hog Tree is the name of my farm. I’m in Northern Virginia. And I’m growing. I have two nursery locations in Northern Virginia, where I’m building up the all the stock necessary for basically going in whole hog on producing trees for farmers to offset livestock feed costs. And so you know, and that’s I do focus on, like, basically zone six and up. But there are some trees that um, there’s some cultivars and growing like a lot of the Ukrainian ones, which will be really cool to test in Wisconsin and zone four B five A, to see if that will be sort of a saving of or an offsetting cost for farmers in the future. And I do do some consulting right now I’m not consulting just because I’ve got way too much going on. But hopefully next year I’ll be consulting and my website is hug tree.com, where I also sell some charcuterie from pigs I’ve raised though, that’s dwindling my charcuterie guy stopped producing orders of salami for me because they’re not producing for small farmers anymore. They’re going big. So that’s it. Once that’s gone, that’s gone and then Hog Tree will transform into selling scion for people who want to graft, selling rootstocks and selling grafted trees. I also want to really just put out, do a major shout out to Savanna Institute with this because they’re taking it on, like they’ve brought me on to work with mulberries and some other crops and just going against the tide, essentially and seeing I’m just really, really happy that there mulberries time has come but it wouldn’t be happening without Savanna Institute right now. So hurray for the future.
Steffen Mirsky 1:00:15
Thanks again to Eliza and Scott for joining me. And thank you for listening. Make sure to catch part two in this series, an interview with the founders of the only large scale commercial mulberry farm in the country.
JASON FISCHBACH 1:00:34
Brought to you by the University of Wisconsin Madison Division of Extension.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai