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Mulberry Family (Moraceae)

Ecology, Distribution And Economic Value

The family Moraceae was named after the mulberry, Modus. The red mulberry, Modus rubra, is native to North America, where it occurs in moist woodlands. It produces a tasty, juicy fruit which is favored by birds, and although it is also good for people to eat, it is not economically important. The white mulberry, Modus alba, is native to Asia. In China, leaves of the white mulberry are fed to cultivated silkworms, a type of moth larva. The white mulberry became naturalized in North America during unsuccessful attempts to establish a silk industry in colonial America. Unlike the native red mulberry, the white mulberry is somewhat weedy, and is often found around homes, in disturbed sites, along fencerows, and in moist, second-growth bottomlands. Fruits of the white mulberry may be white, pink, red, or deep purple. The dark purple fruits inspired the name Modus nigra, although taxonomists have since determined this plant to only be a variety of Modus alba.

Similar in appearance to white mulberry, and also naturalized in the United States, is the ornamental shrub, paper mulberry ( Broussonetia papyrifera), also native to Asia. This mulberry is shrubby, and may form thick colonies from root sprouts. Paper mulberry occurs around homes, fencerows, and disturbed sites. The bark of the paper mulberry is the source of tapa, a fiber used by Pacific islanders to make clothing.

The osage-orange, (Maclura pomifera), is a shrubby tree native to the Red River Valley of Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Like the mulberries, this species can propagate from root sprouts. The osage-orange is a thorny tree that bears a spherical, multiple fruit composed of achenes. The wood of this species is orange in color, and very strong. This wood was used by Native Americans to manufacture bows, and by early pioneers to make long-lasting fence posts and wagon wheels.

The genus Artocarpus includes the breadfruit and jackfruit, whose fruits are used in the Caribbean and South Pacific as food. As the name breadfruit implies, the fruit is starchy, when cooked similar in texture and taste to potatoes. Many tourists have eaten breadfruit while vacationing in the Caribbean, unaware that it was not potatoes. Breadfruit, native to parts of Asia and tropical Pacific islands, was to be brought to the Caribbean islands by Captain Bligh, of Bounty fame.

Species of the diverse fig genus, Ficus, take an assortment of forms. Some of the more unusual species include the strangler figs such as the banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis), which begins life as an epiphyte and sends down rope-like roots that eventually encircle and kill the host tree. A mature banyan tree is an impressive sight, with its large, spreading canopy, and numerous supporting trunks, often encircling a hollow cavity where the original host tree stood. The banyan tree is native to India, where it is considered sacred by Hindus. The bo tree, (Ficus religiosa), of India is believed to bring wealth and happiness to its owners. The bo tree is also considered sacred by Hindus, who believe their god Vishnu was born under one, and to Buddhists, who believe Gautama Buddha achieved nirvana while meditating under one of these trees.

Other important members of the fig genus are some popular horticultural species. The weeping fig, ( Ficus benjamina), can be grown in pots into a small attractive tree with willowy branches and leaves. This species prefers bright light, moist soil, and a humid environment. The fiddleleaf fig, (Ficus lyrata), is a shrub with large leaves shaped like fiddles. The sap of the Indian rubber plant, (Ficus elastica), was once used to manufacture rubber. This species reaches tree proportions when cultivated as an ornamental in southern Florida.


Resources

Books

Duncan, W. H., and M. B. Duncan. Trees of the Southeastern United States. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988.

Everett, T. H. Living Trees of the World. New York: Doubleday, 1968.

Godfrey, R.K. Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines of Northern Florida and adjacent Georgia and Alabama. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988.

KEY TERMS

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Achene

—A dry, indehiscent, one-seeded fruit, with the outer layer fused to the seed.

Cordate

—Heartshaped.

Naturalized

—A nonnative species which has become freely breeding beyond its natural range.

Synconium

—The hollow, fleshy structure in figs which houses the flowers and is often incorrectly referred to as the fruit. The true fruit often has the achenes borne inside the synconium on the female flowers.

Unisexual

—Flowers that bear either male or female reproductive organs.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Molecular distillation to My station and its duties:Mulberry Family (Moraceae) - Flowers, Fruits And Leaves, Ecology, Distribution And Economic Value