FLORA: ‘Lived to learn it!’
By Ken Moore
“Lived to learn it” was A.J. Bullard’s response when I queried him last week about his accumulated mulberry knowledge.
Now, A.J. is one of those characters who are really keen on plants. Some folks consider such a person passionate, but I like the affectionate term I’ve heard: “plant nut!”
A.J is one of a special breed whose profession is one thing and whose life pursuit is something else. A.J.’s pursuit is native trees, shrubs and woody vines. He planted the first tree on his land back in 1965, the same year he opened his dental practice in Mount Olive. His collection now includes an orchard of native blueberry species and cultivars, native grapes, pawpaws, persimmons and an impressive collection of hardy, non-native kiwis.
In addition, he has just about every Carolina species of catbrier, Smilax, in cultivation along the perimeter of his Ericaceae (heath family) garden. That’s characteristic of a “plant nut,” and he has “lived to learn” about them all.
Over the years A.J. has visited botanists and horticulturists at N.C. State, UNC and Duke seeking help on identification and propagation of native species, and over the years professional plant people have come to appreciate that A.J. has “lived to learn” many of the secrets of plants that challenge the professionals.
So I went to visit him at his arboretum between Calypso and Mount Olive. I wanted his help sorting through the taxonomic mess of mulberries. Accompanying me was Ashe County-native and fellow plant enthusiast Liam Shannon, who recently moved with his family to Hillsborough.
He led us immediately to a white mulberry cultivar, Morus alba, “Pakistan,” that was imported from Islamabad and quarantined for two years at Beltsville, Md., before he planted it in 1986. It has delicious, big, perfectly in-between-sweet-and-tart black fruit.
A.J. explained that definitive identification of mulberries is next to impossible, though if one can get close to a true species of red or white mulberry, it is doable. He made me comfortable in distinguishing between the two, but I’m not counting on finding a non-hybrid in the wild.
The confusion began way back in the early 1600s, when King James I sent silkworm eggs and white mulberries over to the colonies to compete with France and Italy in silk production. Silk became an on-again, off-again American industry, beginning in the South but proving more prosperous in New England and Pennsylvania.
Once Asiatic Morus alba hit our native turf, it and our truly native red mulberry, Morus rubra, got along so well that natural hybrids turned up everywhere.
A real highlight of our walk-around with A.J. was standing beneath and sampling the tasty fruits of a hybrid selection, “Silk Hope,” brought to his attention in the 1980s by Chatham County heritage apple man Lee Calhoun. Lee showed him that tree at Silk Hope, and soon afterward A.J. introduced “Silk Hope” into the nursery trade. “Silk Hope” has been producing delicious fruit since mid-April, and there are more coming on.
With appreciation to A.J. Bullard, I’m going to seek out a “Silk Hope” to plant this winter and not fret anymore about all those wild hybrids in the local woods.
Email Ken Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find previous Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora.
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