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Natural Awakenings Naples and Fort Myers

The Marvelous Mulberry

Dec 01, 2011 01:15PM ● By Beth Davis

One of the best things about living in a semi-tropical climate is enjoying the abundance of fresh fruit right at our fingertips. From oranges and mangos to avocados and papayas, Southwest Floridians can count on finding these gems of nature’s bounty at the nearest farmers’ market. However, what could be easier than stepping outside to pluck a perfect specimen right in our own backyard? According to Frank DeNardis, master gardener and member of the Bonita Springs Tropical Fruit Club, not much.

DeNardis began growing tropical fruit trees 20 years ago as a hobby, and now has a nursery with more than 80 organically grown trees on his property in North Naples. “We are very lucky to live in a place where we can raise these trees so easily,” he notes. “I want to get people enthused about growing their own trees and enjoying—literally—the fruits of their labor.”

One tree that has him talking is the mulberry. “It produces an underrated fruit with great potential as a dooryard crop,” DeNardis advises. The tree bears copious amounts of tasty, berrylike fruit, is cold hardy, drought-tolerant and fast growing and requires very little maintenance—making it an ideal investment for both new and seasoned gardeners.

Contrary to the popular nursery song, the mulberry is indeed a tree and not a bush. While three species are commonly grown in Florida, the red mulberry is the only native. It has wide, spreading branches with three- to five-inch leaves; a broad, rounded shape; and can reach heights up to 40 feet. The tree requires little maintenance, establishes itself quickly and even bears fruit at a young age. Once established, the mulberry rarely requires irrigation. DeNardis does suggest pruning while the tree is young, because it can grow seven to eight feet per year.

The red mulberry produces a reddish or black sweet fruit with a hint of tartness, and it is quite delicious. Area wildlife seems to agree—mulberries often attract birds, raccoons and squirrels. Fortunately, a mature tree yields enough fruit for both humans and critters.

The white mulberry hails from China and has white buds that emerge in early spring, usually before those of the red mulberry. The fruit, which can be black, purple or white, tends to be sweet, but lacks the tantalizing tartness of its red cousin.

The black mulberry, native to western Asia, bears fruit of exceptional quality that is nearly always black. The tree is smaller and more bush-like than the red and white species, but is also longer-lived; black mulberries have been known to produce fruit for more than a century.

No matter the species, mulberry trees require full sun and adequate space. They are not recommended as landscape plants, because their fruit can stain sidewalks, driveways and automobile finishes.

Most cultivars ripen during the spring and early summer, although black mulberries may take longer. White and red mulberry fruits are often harvested by spreading a sheet on the ground and shaking the tree limbs until the ripe berries fall. DeNardis notes that not all the berries ripen at once, so this process needs to be repeated several times throughout the fruiting season.

Due to their delicate nature, black mulberry fruits should be handpicked. As the berries are squeezed to pull them loose, they tend to collapse, staining the hands and clothing with dark red juice, so wearing gloves and old clothing is a must.

Unwashed fruit will keep several days in a refrigerated, covered container. The berries can be eaten out of hand or used in pies, tarts, puddings, smoothies and yogurt. They can also be turned into wine and make an excellent dried fruit, especially the black varieties.

Refreshingly succulent, tart and sweet mulberries are not only low in calories, but also in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. They contain helpful flavinoids that fight inflammation and are an excellent source of vitamins C, K, A and E; iron; dietary fiber; magnesium; potassium; and resveratrol, an antioxidant that may protect against strokes.

DeNardis suggests that individuals interested in growing fruit trees in Southwest Florida consider joining the Bonita Springs Tropical Fruit Club, or at least attending one of its monthly meetings. The group sponsors speakers, shares information and answers questions. “It’s a great way to help people get excited about the possibilities of growing their own tropical fruit trees,” he advises.

For more information about tropical trees or the Bonita Springs Tropical Fruit Club, or to make an appointment to visit Frank DeNardis’ nursery, located at 108 Viking Way, in Palm River Estates, in Naples, call 239-597-8359.

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