Secrets of the East Side: White Mulberry

The White Mulberry is often considered one of the most disgusting trees in our area. Its form is completely graceless, with huge ungainly limbs that split partly away from the main trunk and lie on the ground. The bark is coarse, interesting in only the same way as the patterns in dried mud. The leaves take on a trashy yellow color in fall; after leaf drop it looks as if the tree has just devoured a thousand cheap cheeseburgers and dropped the wrappers at its base. And the fruit either stains the ground directly with its paint-peeling, deeply staining acidic purple hue, or it lends this color to the droppings of birds that feast on it. And feast they do, and their mauve splatterings spread the seed of this arboreal beast far and wide, making it an unwanted and aggressive invader of our landscapes.

Like a bull in a china shop, it will appear in a gap in your garden and grow to twice the size of your newly planted Dogwood while you’re away for a week’s vacation. And good luck getting rid of it, for it takes a sharp shovel and a sore back to truly wrench out its roots. Then, while you’re resting and cursing, 10 more of its seedlings sprout among the flowers…

But like Victor Frankenstein or the poor fools who kidnapped King Kong, we brought this curse upon ourselves. We intentionally introduced this tree to our soils from its native home in China, partly in an attempt to start a domestic silk industry. This was a failure – we still import our silk, but the tree liked its new home, and now it is the bane of people who park their cars outside, wooden deck owners and weasel-chasing farmers. And of course horticulturists, arborists and ecologists like the Land Management staff of Forest Park Forever.

And so it is strange that if you ask these people what their favorite tree in the Park is, more than one of them will steer you towards a monstrous White Mulberry hidden away in a gloomy woodland east of the boardwalk near the Steinberg Skating Rink. Perhaps it’s respect for a worthy opponent. This tree has long ago split under its own awesome weight and lays splayed out over the ground like a slain giant. And yet new shoots have emerged from its main trunks to nearly become trees on their own. And being mulberries, one has to assume that these too will fail under their own weight one day. And split, and lie down on the ground, and send up new shoots…

It is quite simply a beautiful monstrosity of a tree. Nearly every person I have ever shown it to associates it with whatever fairy tales colored their youth – Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, the Brothers Grimm, the Headless Horseman emerging from the huge chasm at its center. Like those stories, this tree conjures up some mythical realm inside our imaginations. And like so many of those stories, in the end the monster turns out to be not so bad after all.

And so if you’re walking between the boardwalk and the Victorian bridge, take that less travelled wood chip path that leads southeast away from the beaten gravel, and gaze upon this awful and awesome wonder of the east side. 

Editor's Note: This blog series is penned by Forest Park Forever Gardener Susan Van de Riet and Horticulturist Mark Halpin, who together maintain 123 acres on the east side of Forest Park. To learn more about Susan, Mark and the rest of our talented Land Management team, please click here.