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Broussonetia papyrifera (paper mulberry)

A shrub or tree, with mulberry-like leaves, paper mulberry is important as a source of fibre for cloth and paper.

Leaves and flowers of paper mulberry

Broussonetia papyrifera (Photo: Wolfgang Stuppy)

Species information

Scientific name: 

Broussonetia papyrifera (L.) Vent.

Common name: 

paper mulberry, tapa cloth tree

Conservation status: 

Not known to be threatened; it has become an invasive weed in some areas of the USA.

Habitat: 

Mixed deciduous and evergreen woodland, forest margins and secondary vegetation; a pioneer of disturbed sites.

Key Uses: 

Cloth- and paper-making, medicinal, ornamental.

Known hazards: 

The pollen can cause allergic reactions.

Taxonomy

Subclass: 
Superorder: 
Rosanae
Order: 
Rosalaes
Family: 
Moraceae
Genus: Broussonetia

About this species

John Sims, a British taxonomist and editor of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, wrote rather brutally in 1822: ‘The Paper-Mulberry tree is a shrub of but little beauty; but, both in Japan and in the South-Sea islands, is of the utmost importance for economic purposes’. Despite the comment by Sims, Broussonetia papyrifera has been appreciated by plant-lovers, and grown in Asian and European gardens for many years. Peter Collinson, a keen English amateur gardener, raised plants from seed sent from China as early as 1751, and distributed them among his friends. However, paper mulberry had already been cultivated in Asia and the islands of the Pacific Ocean for many centuries before this – primarily as a source of fibre, food and medicine.

Synonym: 

Morus papyrifera

Genus: 
Broussonetia

Discover more

Geography and distribution

Native to China, Japan, Korea, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma and Assam (India), but cultivated extensively elsewhere in Asia and the Pacific, and naturalised in parts of southern Europe and the USA.

Description

Overview: A deciduous shrub or tree, 10–20 m tall (although exceptionally up to 35 m).

Leaves: The rough leaves (which are covered in soft hairs when young) are about 15 cm long, borne on a stalk, toothed at the margins, dark green on the upper side, and paler and woolly beneath. The leaf shape is variable. Some leaves are deeply lobed, while others (even on the same shoot) can be unlobed.

Flowers: The male and female flowers are borne on separate plants, the female flowers being greenish and held in round heads, the male plants bearing catkins (paper mulberry is wind-pollinated).

Fruits: The edible fruits are orange-red, round or pear-shaped, and split into three parts to reveal a spongy, white inner surface.

A true mulberry?

Broussonetia papyrifera was first thought by botanists to be a kind of mulberry (Morus species), but was later placed in the genus Broussonetia, which was named after Pierre Broussonet (1761-1807), a French naturalist and Director and Professor of Botany at Le Jardin des Plantes de Montpellier (the botanic garden at Montpellier).

Illustration from Curtis's Botanical Magazine

Hand-coloured engraving of Broussonetia papyrifera by John Curtis from Curtis's Botanical Magazine. The upper part of this painting shows a flowering female branch, whilst the lower one is male.

Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (Editor: Martyn Rix) provides an international forum of particular interest to botanists and horticulturists, plant ecologists and those with a special interest in botanical illustration.

Now well over 200 years old, the Magazine is the longest running botanical periodical featuring colour illustrations of plants. Each four-part volume contains 24 plant portraits reproduced from watercolour originals by leading international botanical artists. Detailed but accessible articles combine horticultural and botanical information, history, conservation and economic uses of the plants described.

Published for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew by Blackwell Publishing.

Find out more about Curtis's Botanical Magazine

Uses

Paper- and cloth-making

Paper mulberry played a significant role in the development of paper-making, and is one of the plants mentioned in the Chinese classic Shih Ching (‘Book of Poetry’), which contains a collection of folk songs, odes and sacrificial psalms composed between 1,000 and 500 BC, and is said to have been edited by Confucius. For centuries, the fibre from the inner bark of paper mulberry has been used to make paper in Japan and textiles throughout the Pacific. In both cases the raw material is the soft, inner bark. For paper-making, the inner bark is pounded and mixed with water, and the resulting paste then spread evenly on a mesh to make ‘washi’ (Japanese handmade paper). Paper-making with paper mulberry fibre was established in China by around 100 AD, and reached Japan by about 600 AD.

In contrast, in the Pacific region textiles are made by beating together strips of inner bark. This tapa cloth is used for various items of clothing, such as sarongs, scarves and hats, as well as for making bags and other items such as bedding. Until relatively recently, tapa cloth was the main source of clothing worn on Pacific islands such as Fiji, Tonga and Tahiti. Tapa cloth is still worn on ceremonial occasions, during festivals and for traditional dances. The bark fibres (and indeed the roots) can also be made into rope and cord. The wood is light and easily worked, and is used for making cups, bowls and furniture.

Other uses

The fruits of Broussonetia papyrifera are edible, as are the young leaves, when steamed. The leaves, fruit and bark have a variety of traditional medicinal uses. In China the leaves are fed to silk-worms.

Paper mulberry is a vigorous pioneer species, which can rapidly colonise forest clearings and abandoned farmland. Its ability to colonise degraded lands may make it suitable for reforestation programmes in some situations, although it can become invasive when both male and female trees are present, followed by pollination and seed set. Paper mulberry is frequently planted as a shade tree. It tolerates air pollution, making it suitable for planting along roadsides and in urban settings. It is also grown as an ornamental in parks and gardens. The tree is widely coppiced for tapa and paper production, with the young trees cut every 12–18 months. 

Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life worldwide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.

Description of seeds: Average 1,000 seed weight = 2.1 g
Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: One
Seed storage behaviour: Recalcitrant
Composition values: Average oil content = 30.1%. Average protein content = 18.5%.

Cultivation

Paper mulberry is a fast-growing tree, which often produces suckers from its roots. It is grown in many subtropical and warm temperate regions. It will grow on any well-drained soil, and performs best in a sheltered place in full sun. In England, paper mulberry usually grows into a large shrub or small tree, but can grow into a large tree in areas with long, hot summers. It can withstand temperatures down to at least -5°C. When grown for paper-making, it is coppiced (regularly cut at near ground level) to produce a shrubby bush. Propagation is by seed, cuttings or root suckers.

This species at Kew

There is a small grove of paper mulberry trees to the north of King William's Temple at Kew; other specimens can be seen in Westwood Valley at Wakehurst.

Broussonetia papyrifera (Photo: Wolfgang Stuppy)

Pressed and dried specimens of Broussonetia papyrifera are held in Kew’s Herbarium, where they are available to researchers by appointment. The details of some of these specimens, including images, can be seen online in the Herbarium Catalogue.

View details and images of specimens online

Specimens of paper mulberry wood, bark, and paper and cloth products (including fans, envelopes, a bowl, kite, parasol, coat, cloak, hat, dresses and shoes) are held in Kew’s Economic Botany Collection, where they are available to researchers, by appointment.

Items of particular importance are the paper products collected by Sir Harry Parkes in the 19th century and examples of tapa cloth from Polynesia (one of which was made by the wife of one of the mutineers of the HMS Bounty, the vessel captained by William Bligh in order to collect breadfruit plants, Artocarpus altilis, and take them to the Caribbean). Some of the garments made from paper mulberry are on public display in the Plants + People Exhibition in Museum No. 1.

Collections made by Sir Harry Parkes

Many of the items made from paper mulberry in the Economic Botany Collection were collected in Japan by Sir Harry Parkes (British Consul in Japan from 1865 to 1883, and pioneer of Anglo-Japanese relations). Parkes had been requested by the then Foreign Secretary, Earl Clarendon, to gather information on paper-making in Japan (after Prime Minister William Gladstone had heard of the exceptional quality of the paper products made there). It was hoped that British manufacturers could gain valuable knowledge from Japanese expertise. Kew’s Director at the time, Sir William Hooker, also requested Parkes to collect specimens for scientific study, and over the next few years Parkes collected over 400 examples of paper and paper products. Some of the items in the Parkes’ collection, including garments made from paper mulberry, are on public display in the Plants + People Exhibition in Museum No. 1.

References and credits

Barker, C. (2002). Broussonetia papyrifera. Curtis's Bot. Mag. 19: 8-18.

Berg, C.C. (2003). Broussonetia papyrifera (L.) L’Hér. ex Vent. In: Plant Resources of South-East Asia No. 17. Fibre Plants, ed. M. Brink & R.P. Escobin, pp. 91-95. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, the Netherlands.

Hsuan Keng (1974). Economic plants of ancient north China as mentioned in “Shih Ching” (Book of Poetry). Econ. Bot. 28: 391-410.

Phillips, R. & Rix, M. (2002). The Botanical Garden, Volume 1: Trees & Shrubs. Macmillan, London.

Royal Botanic Gardens Kew (2008). Seed Information Database (SID). Version 7.1. Available online (accessed 28 March 2011).

The Plant List (2010). Broussonetia papyrifera. Available online (accessed 28 March 2011).

Kew Science Editor: Martyn Rix
Kew contributors: Steve Davis (Sustainable Uses Group) and Mark Nesbitt (Herbarium, Library, Art & Archives)
Copyediting: Emma Tredwell

While every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, the notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions.

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