You can’t grow currants in N.C., so try red mulberries

  • Posted: Friday, January 18, 2013 7:01 a.m.

Last week I was asked about growing currants. Currants, and their close relative, gooseberries, will grow in our climate. However, they are not legal to grow in North Carolina. The concern is that they are an alternate host for white pine blister rust.

This is a potential problem for our white pine timber industry in the state. Young white pine plantations are most threatened by this disease. There still is an active eradication program in North Carolina to eliminate wild currants.

New currant and gooseberry cultivars claim to be resistant to white pine blister rust and may pose no threat to white pines. However, these claims have yet to be backed by scientific evidence. Researchers in other states are testing various varieties for resistance. Their findings will impact what North Carolina does in regard to amending the regulations.

The actual law states: “No person shall knowingly and willfully keep upon his premises any currant or gooseberry plant, or permit such plants to mature seed or otherwise multiply upon his land.”

Although currants should not be grown in North Carolina, there are many interesting fruits and berries that can be grown. One interesting berry that seems to be overlooked is the red mulberry, Morus rubra. This has been called the “King of the Tree Crops.” However, most homeowners find it messy, leaving purple splotches on cars and driveways. These stains are caused by delicious berries that can be eaten right off the tree.

Red mulberries, Morus rubra, are native to North America. They can be found in bottomlands, along streams, and generally in shaded areas. A close cousin to our red mulberry is its Asian relative, the white mulberry.

The white mulberry was introduced to North America in the 1600s. In 1624, the legislature of Virginia required every male resident to plant at least four white mulberry trees to promote a North American silk industry. By the 1830s, the potential for a silk industry prompted a horticultural phenomenon known as “mulberry mania” in the eastern United States. However, the silk industry never boomed in the United States because cost of production was high.

There is a connection between mulberries and silkworms. Silkworms have been fed mulberry leaves in China for more than 4,000 years. The silkworms eat mulberry leaves, especially the white mulberry.

Americans were not the only ones planting white mulberries. England tried for several hundred years to have a silk industry, too. King James I of England installed a mulberry plantation on the current Buckingham Palace site. He unsuccessfully attempted to breed silkworms in this garden. But due to high cost of production and low silk yield, their efforts failed to develop into an industry.

Today synthetic fibers have eliminated the need for a large silk industry, and white mulberries are considered invasive. However, we can still enjoy the fruit in the late spring.

The fruit of white mulberries can be harvested by spreading a sheet on the ground and shaking the tree limbs. Red mulberry fruit is more difficult. The berries are more fragile and will squish when ripe. They leave your hands stained by the red juice. I eat the berries when I pick them, but they be can used like other berries in pies, tarts, puddings or sauces. They can also be blended with other berries.

Seth Nagy is County Extension Director in Caldwell County.

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