Red Mulberry Search and Rescue: Preserving Genetic Diversity for the Future of Sustainable Agroforestry

Progress report for FNC22-1338

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2022: $19,437.00
Projected End Date: 12/15/2024
Grant Recipient: Solid Ground Farm
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:
Weston Lombard
Solid Ground Farm
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Project Information

Description of operation:

Solid Ground Farm is a 17 acre diversified small farm and education center with a focus on agroforestry and homescale livestock. We are particularly interested in improved native and naturalized fruit and nut crops to feed people and livestock and have several orchards and forest gardens of various sizes and ages producing everything from Chinese chestnuts to mulberries. The farm is 12 years old and also houses a summer camp, a nature-based elementary school, and a community garden.


Our native red mulberry, Morus rubra—a fruit-producing tree with delicious, nutritious, complex flavored fruit, high production potential, innate pest/disease resistance, and rapidly growing commercial and home production interest—is slowly fading from its native range due to the rapid spread of the invasive Morus albaMorus alba was imported in the 1600s and planted by the millions across the eastern seaboard in a failed attempt to create a domestic silk industry. Trees quickly escaped from these orchards and have since naturalized across the country.  These invasive trees release large amounts of wind-dispersed pollen that readily pollinates the native trees, producing hybrid offspring that are steadily and irrevocably replacing pure Morus rubra

In order to address this slow-motion extinction by hybrid replacement, we propose to find, propagate, and establish preserves and breeding orchards of high-quality, fruit-producing Morus rubra specimens with commercial potential. By holding a national mulberry Search and Rescue Contest, we plan to crowdsource the best Morus rubra trees growing wild, in orchards, and nursery rows across the country. Entries will be genetically tested, rated for potential as commercial cultivars, and the winning trees named and made available to farmers, nurseries, researchers, and fruit enthusiasts throughout the North Central region.

Project Objectives:
  1. Hold a contest to find productive Morus rubra specimens with commercial potential and perform genetic testing of advertised "Morus rubra" cultivars (often mislabeled Morus alba trees that have red fruit) to establish verified native sources.
  2. Name and release several new Morus rubra cultivars suitable for orchard production.
  3. Propagate and establish two preserves and breeding orchards in order to provide verified native mulberry plant material to nurseries, farmers, conservation workers, researchers, and landowners throughout the North Central region.
  4. Promote the value, usefulness, and profitability of growing native mulberry trees through field days, website and social media promotions, and a scholarly journal.


Materials and methods:

The goal of this project is to identify superior Morus rubra specimens suitable for fruit production. Then genetically test them to establish pure native sources of mulberry to share with the general public.  To achieve this we have taken a crowd sourcing approach and created a Facebook event promoting a Mulberry Search and Rescue Contest. We are offering free genetic testing to participants and help developing connections with nurseries and other buyers of mulberry cuttings and scionwood for those interested.  We will then buy propagation materials from the test entrants and clone the trees to start a research/demonstration/breeding orchard.  

The contest has gone well and has been promoted heavily on various interest groups and online forums.  We found some great potential trees, but have been delayed in the testing process.  We based our initial plan on a Canadian study that established genetic markers for wild Morus rubra trees up north. However, upon deeper review of the study methods, our geneticist consultant suggested that the number of markers and the type of test used (RAPD) were insufficient for our goals of establishing definitive purity of our source material.  As a result, we have spent considerable time researching alternative testing plans and have come up with a new plan utilizing GBS testing that will provide more accuracy. This project is particularly challenging because unlike more common trees, the genome for Morus rubra has not yet been mapped to provide a basis for easy comparison, so we are essentially building the map as we go.

This revamping is resulting in a delay and relaunch of the contest.

After relaunch we now have 100 promising samples from around the country and have chosen a half dozen of them that appear most likely to be pure Morus rubra specimens for our first round of testing. These samples will be tested and reviewed to create a reference genome and establish markers for identifying future rubra specimens.  After this is established, the remaining samples will be compared to this reference and cross referenced against the Morus alba genome to establish if samples are hybrids or pure rubra specimens.  This process is new and has taken time to establish, resulting in a further delay of our results. We have just been approved for an 11 month extension to finish the project.

Research results and discussion:

We have identified and collected data on 100 potential Morus rubra trees. After genetically testing these, we will further evaluate the pure Morus rubra trees for fruit size, productivity, and flavor and then choose 10 trees to promote as new Morus rubra cultivars.

Participation Summary
60 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

3 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools

Participation Summary:

168 Farmers participated
5 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

In order to spread the word about our project and the Mulberry Search and Rescue Contest to land owners, farmers, and fruit enthusiasts, we first networked and consulted with other mulberry enthusiasts in order to create Contest Instructions and a resource list of Morus Rubra Identification Guides. Once this was in place we launched a Facebook Event with an easily shareable link that we could all distribute to our networks. This event link and the contest instructions were then shared on fruit growing forums, Facebook interest groups (primarily NAFEX and my own Growing Mulberry in Temperate Climates pages, and other targeted interest groups), and in email chains. The Facebook event and interest group pages were then regularly updated with videos about mulberry harvests, taste comparisons, and photos of fruit size.  Because a really comprehensive identification video comparing the common mulberry species and hybrids wasn't accessible, we also created the most in-depth identification video available online.

We have now hosted a second round of the contest and collected an additional 50 samples.  We are still working to complete the testing and share the results through similar avenues as well as direct messages to nurseries that may be interested in growing the newly released cultivars.

Learning Outcomes

5 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Lessons Learned:

We did confirm that thanks to the internet and the abundance of interest groups on specific topics like growing mulberries, that crowd-sourcing is a great way to find new trees worthy of propagation and sharing. This method has been used since at least the 1900's when people like John Hershey would put out ads in local papers requesting superior nuts and fruits be sent to him for evaluation. Thanks to the internet, this process is now much easier and cost effective and superior cultivars of any wild or domestic crop could be discovered and shared in such a manner.

The greatest problem we have faced is unique to this species and to figuring out the perfect and yet affordable genetic testing protocol for Morus rubra.  Consulting with more geneticists prior to launch definitely would have helped for a smoother roll out of the project.

Project Outcomes

5 New working collaborations

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.