The Mulberry Family

Common Fig Black Mulberry White Mulberry Common Fig

What are they?

This is a large family of mostly woody shrubs and trees and includes some important food crops in the tropics. This is a very variable family that is difficult to describe in a few words, though its members typically have latex in the stems and most species have fruits that are defined as a collection of drupes - a mass of individual, fleshy fruits clustered together (rather like a blackberry, for example). Figs present a very unusual case in having a fleshy base to the flower cluster which over time has increased to completely encase the mass of tiny flowers. Access to the flowers is only through a tiny hole at the top of the fleshy structure and can only be effected by certain, small species of wasps.

Where are they found?

There are no native members of the mulberry family in the UK, but one or two species are occasionally planted as ornamentals in amenity areas, cemeteries or on roadsides.

Identification

The few species that have been recorded in East Anglia are mostly rather easy to identify based on a combination of leaf and fruit details. The mulberries are a little less straightfoward but can be told by the hairiness of the underside of the leaves.



Black Mulberry      Morus nigra

Introduced to Europe as early as Roman times but probably native to Central Asia. Most records are of old, mature specimens in churchyards and similar public spaces, but bird-sown seedlings have been reported from Cambridge. Flowers May to June. A deciduous small tree to 12m in height. Leaves rough with stiff hairs above, softly hairy beneath; typically unlobed on older plants but may be deeply 3- to 5-lobed on young plants or on vigorous regrowth after pruning. Fruits are greenish-white at first, becoming dark red or purple with maturity and somewhat resembling blackberries.

Black Mulberry Black Mulberry Black Mulberry Black Mulberry
Habit
Leaves
Leaves
Leaf
Black Mulberry Black Mulberry Black Mulberry
Fruit
Winter twig
Bark


White Mulberry      Morus alba

Introduced from China, originally as a food source for silkworms. Recorded just once in our region, from Sudbury, Suffolk, but certainly under-recorded and known to be present in churchyards elsewhere. Flowers May to June. A deciduous small tree to 13m in height. Leaves hairless and often shiny above, hairy only on the veins beneath; typically unlobed on older plants but may be deeply 3- to 5-lobed on young plants or on vigorous regrowth after pruning. Fruits are typically white but may darken to pink or purple when mature and best told from those of Black Mulberry by their longer stalks.

White Mulberry White Mulberry White Mulberry White Mulberry
Leaves
Leaf
Leaf underside
Male flowers
White Mulberry White Mulberry White Mulberry White Mulberry
Female flowers
Fruit
Winter twig
Bark


Common Fig      Ficus carica

Introduced from southern Europe for its edible fruits, which require a sheltered spot to ripen fully (though milder winters continue to aid the process). May be found as a mature specimen where planted in urban areas but also sometimes recorded as young seedlings from discarded fruit. Flowers and fruits may occur throughout the year, with fruits typically ripening in late summer. A deciduous small tree to 10m in height. The flowers are bizarre structures and essentially resemble small, green fruits with a mass of individual florets on the inside. Fruits may be green when ripe or become reddish- or bluish-purple. Winter twigs are very stout and with long, pointed leaf buds.

Common Fig Common Fig Common Fig
Leaf
Leaf
Flower
Common Fig Common Fig Common Fig Common Fig
Young fruit
Mature fruit
Winter twig
Bark


Osage-orange      Maclura pomifera

Introduced from North America as an ornamental and curiosity for its unusual fruits. Recorded from a hedge in West Suffolk but may also be present elsewhere in amnity areas (certainly well established at Cambridge Botanic Gardens and at Easton College, Norwich. Flowers May to June. A deciduous tree with simple, taper-tipped leaves and a few thorns on the stems. Male and female flowers are carried on separate trees, with the females producing green fruits the size of grapefruits with coarsely structured skins.

This species is declining in the wild and is considered to be one of the so-called 'megafauna-dependent plants'. Many such plants are failing to reproduce successfully because the large animals required to eat the fruits as part of the seed development process - such as giant land sloths and mammoths - are no longer with us.

Osage-orange Osage-orange Osage-orange
Leaf
Leaf
Fruit
Osage-orange Osage-orange Osage-orange Osage-orange
Fruit
Spine
Winter bud
Bark