Before Fran moved to a Bedfordshire village I’d never eaten a mulberry. Not an unusual thing, I don’t know many people who have. But she has a beautiful specimen in the middle of her back garden, bearing inch-long reddy-black berries which burst on your fingers almost as soon as they are touched. Shoes were left at the door…mulberry juice isn’t the easiest stain to remove!
As I keep mentioning, I don’t yet have a garden. Now I’ve tasted them, I would love a proper black mulberry of my own, espaliered for space-saving (click here for info – instructions from Ken Muir) but they can take years to fruit. I am hoping Fran will let me take cuttings from her tree to try and grow one or two in a pot from scratch. Or that Santa will bring me one. By the time they get near to fruiting size we might be in a house with a (walled) garden…
So when Suttons announced a new dwarfing, self-fertile mulberry there was no hesitation at all. Bought in a trice! It fruits on the new and old wood, and has a long fruiting season – which sounds perfect! My plant arrived in February and has since lived inside my unheated greenhouse. A bit more detail of the breeding history has come out since I bought my plant and I’ve been keeping hold of every snippet.
The Charlotte Russe is a cross between a white mulberry (as eaten by silkworms) and a black one (as mistakenly bought by James I to kickstart the English silk industry). Its formal classification is morus rotundiloba, bred by Hajime Matsunaga in Japan who holds Plant Breeder’s Rights. It’s sold in the UK under licence exclusively through Suttons. And this week it was awarded RHS Chelsea’s Plant of the Year (click on link to article), which is no doubt going to make the 7,500 plants in this autumn’s release sell like hot cakes.
So how does it do? It’s a lovely-looking plant with very fragile stems. Being a klutz I broke one getting it out of the packaging. More on that later. It seems to have enjoyed life in the greenhouse – it’s already grown 45cm in the 3 months since arriving and has steadily shifted up from a 9cm pot to a 30cm one. The final pot will be a 40L job, and I bet it’s in it by the end of the year! The maximum Charlotte Russe reaches is apparently 150-200cm in both height and spread, which isn’t that tiny, but keeping it in a pot should restrict it further. The leaves are beautiful – heart-shaped, fluttery and delicate.
As the leaves have emerged, so have the flowers and berries. Copious numbers. Suttons haven’t undersold the plant’s enthusiasm. They are odd-looking – little berries which suddenly develop hairs. And then gradually turn red. A colour they aren’t keen on changing, no matter how often you look… When they do change colour they do it FAST, swelling a fair bit as they do. (obsessive checking pays off!) The berries don’t ever achieve a huge size, more like a large blueberry, but you get lots. This week I’ve chomped through a good 50 or so. The bush will need to be netted on my site or I can see our many pigeons getting even fatter.
The key question is, are they worth it? To be brutally honest, no. They aren’t. I am pretty disappointed in the harvest I have had given the initial glowing write-up. When totally black they are juicy and taste very sweet but have absolutely zero flavour. When picked juuuuust before all the red vanishes they taste like a memory of mulberry, but have a slightly odd rubbery texture and not much in the way of juiciness. Nice, but definitely not amazing. Cooking or dehydrating the berries might intensify the flavour, but I want fresh mulberries, and sadly for me, a proper ripe mulberry from a morus nigra still knocks the socks off the Charlotte Russe. In all honesty and based on the berries so far, if I were thinking of buying something that would grow to 1.5m x 1.5m I would probably get another tayberry.
The caveat to all the above is my results might be down to my compost/watering/feeding regime. I hate being negative about something that could, and should, be splendid. So I would love to hear that I am wrong – preferably with a ‘how-to-make-the-berries-taste-great’ guide.
And then how did an edible win RHS Chelsea’s Plant of the Year if the berries aren’t spectacular? The simple answer is they weren’t tasted. According to the article linked above, none of the berries were ripe on the specimen plant submitted. Personally I don’t think that’s on if an edible’s being judged, despite the unquestionable achievement of breeding it in the first place. The cynical part of me is betting that this small fact is overlooked in the subsequent marketing spiel.
If you do like them (and if I learn how to make them taste nice enough to want more than one bush!), the silver lining is that they take incredibly easily from cuttings. Remember that little piece I broke off in February? I wrapped the base in damp kitchen roll and stuck the whole thing in an inflated ziplock bag. Six or so weeks later it had a new shoot and teeeny tiny roots. It’s now nearly 10cm tall in a pot in the greenhouse, shortly to move outside now summer’s in full swing.
I would genuinely like to know what you think of them (if you have one of the 2,500 plants from the initial release they could be fruiting about now) and in particular what you think of the berries. Please do leave a comment.