Silkworms and Mulberry Trees

In early spring, thousands of families in rural China are trekking into fields to strip the last mulberry leaves from the trees. Mulberry leaves are the only leaves that silkworms will eat. The leaves must be fresh as silkworms will not drink water and the leaves supply all the moisture they need. By the end of April, silkworm trays fill homes.  The silkworms are at their largest and their appetite is truly immense. They are in their last week, and at this age, they can eat their body weight in leaves in a day.

Typically, the women care for the silkworms in the home. They must keep the trays clean, be vigilant for signs of sickness, and make sure that there are always fresh leaves to eat. Young leaves and buds are sorted for the very young. As the silkworms grow older (and bigger!), they must be moved to new trays to avoid crowding. This is all after making breakfast for the family, sending the children off to school, and working in the garden or fields.

While the silkworms and the people who raise them deserve much of the glory, I think the unsung heroes of silk-making may be the mulberry trees themselves. Once a cutting is planted and established, they require no further watering. They can be pruned low, much like grape vines for easy picking. And once cut, the trees will send out a flush of new shoots time and again. Both the flowers and leaves are eaten. They are people-friendly too. No thorns and their branches snap off for easy carrying. Since silkworms are very chemically-sensitive, mulberry trees are never sprayed, but are generally not bothered by pests and diseases.

In some farms, the mulberry trees are planted along the edge of fish ponds and are enriched with the pond dredgings. When grown on hillsides, they prevent soil erosion. And they’re tough and undemanding. Where tea plants cannot be cultivated because the soils are too poor, mulberry trees can often be grown.

I don’t really know how many mulberry leaves a silkworm eats in its life, but it’s a lot. And those leaves had to be grown by a tree. So when a child plays with a playsilk, he is playing with rays of golden sunshine, warm rain, and a mountain of mulberry leaves!


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2 comments


  • In answer to Fellicia. No, the silkworms aren’t a threat to the mulberry trees. First, they are domesticated little worms, and no longer can be found in the wild. They have been bred over the years to enhance their silk production, and as a result, over the centuries, have lost their ability to fly.

    Unfortunately, people have not planted many mulberry trees in recent years, because with mega grocery stores and commercial fruit production, the industry is more interested in shelf life. Mulberries (the fruit is like large blackberries) do not last long once they are picked, bruise easily, and can leave purple stains. In our urban life, people with sidewalks, and close houses do not like mulberry trees for this reason—also their root systems can be quite intense.

    What is really amazing though about the mulberry trees/silk worms/other insects/ birds is the symbiotic relationships among them all. The trees blossom prolifically, which is great for honeybees. Then the leaves start sprouting, and the hungry little silkworms will eat as many little leaves as you give them and more. It takes 25 mulberry trees to support 5000 little worms -which make about 2.5 lbs of raw silk.

    But it doesn’t hurt the tree to strip it of its leaves over the 30 day period the worms are feasting.

    And then the worms cocoon. And then, the berries ripen on the tree. There will be gigantic amounts on one tree—so if a farmer can’t use all the berries for preserves, pies, ice cream, wine…they can be used for chickens and goats. Wild birds LOVE them, as do squirrels.

    Mulberry trees are amazing trees. And so are all the little creatures who benefit from them. My goal is to create a mulberry farm, and raise all the little ones who love them as much as I do.

    Hope this answers your question!
    -KaiCarra

    Kai on

  • Um.. is the silkworm a threat to the mulberry trees?

    Feilicia on

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