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The Mighty Mulberry
With the natural food industry continuously expanding its reach to an ever-growing repertoire of novel foods, mulberries are emerging as an important new superfruit with great promise. This fruit has a long history of traditional use and research and is validating the many ways that this important plant can be used for health and longevity.
Mulberries belong to the Moraceae family and while there are hundreds of species in the Morus genus, the three most cultivated are the black mulberry (Morus nigra L.), the white mulberry (Morus alba L.) and the red mulberry (Morus rubra L.). The nursery rhyme “here we go round the mulberry bush” refers to one form of the plant, however, some mulberries grow into huge trees that live for hundreds of years. Generally speaking the plant is extremely hardy and grows well in a wide range of topographical, soil and climactic conditions from subtropical to temperate. Native to Asia, the plant is now widespread in Europe, parts of North America, the Indian subcontinent, northern Africa and the Middle East.
The mulberry fruit has been enjoyed for thousands of years. References to the fruit exist in the Bible as well as other ancient texts with the most famous reference being from Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe. Cultivated for over 5000 years in China, the mulberry’s greatest claim to fame is from its association to the silkworm industry. The domesticated silkworm known as Bombyx mori or “silkworm of the mulberry tree” utilizes fresh, white mulberry leaves as its sole source of food. The silkworm spins a protein-fibre silk cocoon from which over 80% of the world’s cultivated silk is made.
While there are many legends of how the precious silkworm’s silk was discovered, the most famous is of the Yellow Emperor’s wife Lei Zu, who while sitting under a tree enjoying a cup of tea discovered that a cocoon had fallen into her cup. Since hot water softens the filaments holding the cocoon together, she quite literally unraveled the mystery of this incredible natural wonder.
In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) all parts of the mulberry plant have been utilized from the leaves to the roots to the bark to the sap to the fruit. Even the dried silkworm itself in its larvae state after the cocoon has been removed is used. In TCM, mulberry is considered to be a cooling and nourishing Yin tonic, strengthening for both liver and kidney meridians. Mulberries are considered to be a gentle tonifying food for many systems of the body.
Research is in fact showing that mulberry leaves are a powerful anti-hyperglycemic with the ability to treat and prevent type 2 diabetes. The leaves contain DNJ, an alkaloid that not only establishes greater glycemic control, but that exhibits anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and anti-bacterial activity. Other than the leaves, the berries themselves are extremely beneficial. Many studies have pointed to the antioxidative potential of both white and black mulberries.
From a nutritional standpoint, the fruits are an excellent source of vitamin C, calcium, fibre and an abundance of protective antioxidants. In one 28 gram serving, which is the equivalent to 3 tablespoons, mulberries contain 4 grams of fiber, which constitutes 16% of the recommended daily value as well as 3 grams of protein. At this serving size, the berry also provides 8% of the daily recommended calcium, 20% of the daily recommended Iron and an amazing 130% of the daily recommended vitamin C.
Black mulberries have a balanced sweet and tart flavour profile, while white mulberries tend to have a sweeter taste. They are delicious on their own as a nutritious snack or make a wonderful addition to a smoothie, yogurt, cereal or trail mix. They can be added to salads, teas or used to make jams, jellies, ice creams and in all baking applications.
It is no wonder that the mulberry plant has captivated many different cultures. When the silkworm craze hit in the 1830s and the trees were brought to the US for silkworm cultivation, mulberry trees became all the rage as a backyard tree. In the words of Henry Ward Beecher, the brother of writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, “I regard mulberry as an indispensable addition to every fruit garden; and I speak what I think when I say that I had rather have one tree of Downing’s Everbearing Mulberries than a bed of strawberries.” With greater understanding of the many health benefits that the mulberry has to offer, it will undoubtedly become a new favourite.
Renita Rietz is a health and nutrition writer and speaker who educates on the phytotherapeutic potential of indigenous foods and plants for prevention and regeneration. [email protected]