Mulberry tree mystery is solved

  • Bermuda’s own: A red mulberry tree, which has been proved to be a native flora of the Island

    Bermuda’s own: A red mulberry tree, which has been proved to be a native flora of the Island
    ((File photo by Lisa Greene))

The uncertainty surrounding the origins of the Island’s mulberry trees has been solved thanks to a combination of tireless conservation work and cutting edge technology.

The question over whether the mulberries that grow in Bermuda today had been introduced or were native species had perplexed conservationists for decades.

The tree’s ambiguous beginnings stopped Dr David Wingate from planting it on Nonsuch Island as he turned the Island into a living museum of pre-colonial Bermuda’s flora and fauna.

But once he retired in 2000 he turned his attention back to his “Cinderella plant” to see which mulberry species grow in Bermuda today and if the red mulberry, which was referred to by the Island’s first settlers, was indeed native to Bermuda.

His work brought him into contact with Dr Kevin Burgess, a leading authority on mulberry trees and the DNA barcoding of plants.

In 2013 the pair travelled from one end of the Island to the other collecting specimens from mulberry trees, which were then sent away to Dr Burgess’s lab at Columbus State College.

The results prove beyond doubt that the red mulberry was a native flora in Bermuda and that there are still some pure red mulberries in Bermuda.

Furthermore the tests show that both red and white mulberries exist in Bermuda today and that the plant has hybridised to create red mulberry hybrids and white mulberry hybrids.

Dr Wingate told The Royal Gazette: “The problem with the red mulberry was not so much that its native status was in doubt as several members of the Sea Venture party specifically stated that a mulberry was common on the Island three years before human settlement began, so the American red mulberry species was the only possible candidate.

“Rather, the problem was that inspired by its presence on Bermuda, the Bermuda company settlers were encouraged to think that silk culture would be possible as an industry on the Island, so they deliberately introduced the white and black mulberry from Europe as early as 1612-1616 and most settlers were required to plant many from seed or cuttings on each of the shares of the Norwood subdivision as the native forest was cleared for agriculture.

“As all three species are especially difficult to tell apart, many subsequent botanists were ambiguous about their identification and some even came to doubt that the red mulberry had ever been native, attributing all mulberries on the Island to those introduced by the settlers from Europe.”

The former Conservation Officer added: “Unfortunately, I was equally confused by this ambiguity and the difficulty of making reliable identifications, so not wishing to plant an introduced mulberry in the Nonsuch project, I neglected to plant any at all.

“After my retirement in 2000 I decided to focus on this species as a special project and make up for this neglect.”

Both Dr Burgess and Dr Wingate have worked tirelessly on the mulberry project and the DNA barcoding tests were undertaken at the end of 2014.

Dr Burgess was invited back to Bermuda just last week by Anna Fulton to give a presentation with Dr Wingate to the Garden Club of Bermuda monthly meeting held at Horticultural Hall, Bermuda Botanical Garden on the mulberry project.

Dr Burgess said: “Our preliminary results indicate that red mulberry was likely a component of the native flora before colonial settlement.

“Based on our genetic analysis we were able to not only confirm that red mulberry is present in Bermuda but that hybridisation between red and white mulberry has probably been occurring between these two species for quite some time.

“Because these results are preliminary, we plan to continue analysing the genetic composition of additional mulberry in Bermuda to further elucidate patterns of red mulberry dispersal as well as the extent of hybridisation with the introduced white mulberry.”

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Published Mar 21, 2015 at 8:00 am (Updated Mar 21, 2015 at 1:32 am)

Mulberry tree mystery is solved

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