Of all mulberry cultivars I’ve eaten, the one which to me has the best flavor is variety ‘Himalayan’, which came from the Fruit & Spice Park in Homestead, Florida. Its taste is so intensely fruity and sweet it can make other mulberries seem bland by comparison.
I first encountered this variety in early February 2013, on a visit to the Fruit and Spice Park. Walking into the entrance building that day, I asked the admissions attendant if anything interesting was fruiting. She recommended the ‘Himalayan’ mulberry. I’d never heard of that variety, so I went looking for it. I soon came upon the tree, with three-inch long mulberries dangling all over its branches, and fallen fruits littered the ground underneath. The moment I tasted the berries, my eyes went wide. I thought, “This is the best damn mulberry I’ve ever eaten. And I’ve eaten a lot of really good mulberries.” The Fruit and Spice Park grows many of the world’s finest fruits, and not only was ‘Himalayan’ the top tasting among the mulberries, I considered it to hold its own with the best of the Park’s other outstanding fruit offerings.
Motivated by that remarkable flavor, I got permission from park staff to do cutting propagation from the tree. I was ecstatic when I successfully rooted a few cuttings of this remarkable variety. Over the ensuing years, I planted three cutting-grown ‘Himalayan’ trees in the ground at my own place in North Florida, each time with my mouth watering with the anticipation of being able to harvest those fantastic-tasting berries. But the only thing that grew was disappointment. Each tree I planted would push out a few new leaves, then stall out, decline, and eventually die. Puzzled & disgusted, I finally yanked one of the dead trees out of the ground and examined its roots. They were riddled with the lesions typical of nematode damage. I’d never heard of mulberries having problems with nematodes before.
Another mulberry variety in my collection, ‘Sixth Street’, had always performed well at my property, apparently tolerating the nematodes. So in 2019, I tried an experiment – I grafted ‘Himalayan’ onto a plant of ‘Sixth Street’, and set the grafted tree in the ground. This time, the little tree took off like a rocket – I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a fruit tree grow so quickly. By spring 2021, barely 18 months after being set in the ground as a knee-high plant, the grafted ‘Himalayan’ tree was 12 feet tall, 12 feet wide, with trunk as fat as a baseball bat. And for the first time, it ripened a crop of berries. After eight years of trying, I finally had a fruiting ‘Himalayan’ mulberry tree at my place.
The fruits on my tree taste every bit as fantastic as the ones I remember from Fruit and Spice Park. Usually I’m able to come up with at least a rough description of the flavor of a fruit to people who haven’t tried it before, but words fail me in trying to describe the remarkable taste of ‘Himalayan’ mulberry. All I can say is the flavor is really, really good, complex and intensely fruity, with a touch of tart balanced by a candy-like sweetness.
I’m not the only one who thinks this is a particularly outstanding mulberry – several other people have gotten to eat fruits from my ‘Himalayan’ tree, and all agree the flavor is spectacular. In fact, upon first tasting the berries, everyone has spoken the same word: “Wow!” A common second reaction is people say it reminds them of something, perhaps a candy from childhood, but most can’t quite place what it is.
Before one friend tasted the fruits, I explained to him that I’d spent eight years figuring out how to grow this cultivar before finally succeeding. He kind of poked fun at me, saying, “Man, you’re one persistent motherf-cker.” Then I handed him some of the berries. After a few moments of nibbling, he said, “Wow. This is the best mulberry I’ve ever had. Okay, now I understand why you spent all those years trying to grow this variety.”
Variety name confusion:
A number of nurseries sell mulberries labeled as ‘Himalayan’. Are those plants the same as the ‘Himalayan’ cultivar from Fruit and Spice Park? It’s hard to say. Some might be, some probably are different varieties.
There seem to be a number of long-fruited, dark-colored mulberry cultivars in circulation in the nursery trade, and apparent confusion or disagreement about what to call them. I see the names ‘Himalayan’, ‘Red Himalayan’, ‘Shahtoot’, ‘Red Shahtoot’, ‘Pakistan’, ‘Pakistani’, ‘Black Pakistan’, ‘Cookes Pakistan’, ‘Taiwan Long’ being used. But looking at photos posted by different people of each variety name, it appears that in many cases, the same name is being applied to different cultivars.
There’s especially a lot of confusion between varieties ‘Pakistan’ and ‘Himalayan’. A number of people treat the two names as synonyms. I’ve heard things like “this is variety Pakistan, also known as Himalayan”, or “this is that Pakistani-Himalayan variety”.
There is a variety that’s been grown in the U.S. for decades under the name ‘Pakistan’ , and I can confirm that it is definitely a different cultivar from the ‘Himalayan’ tree at Fruit and Spice Park. The introduction of that ‘Pakistan’ is described in the article “Mulberries From a Southeastern US Perspective” in the May/June 1997 issue of Fruit Gardener magazine. There, Dr. AJ Bullard reported that in the early 1980s, he and Mike McConkey handled post-entry quarantine for a long-fruited mulberry variety they had introduced to the U.S. from Islamabad, Pakistan, and they gave this new introduction the variety name ‘Pakistan’. Since then, McConkey’s nursery Edible Landscaping in Virginia has for many years distributed that variety by mail order, so it’s likely that many of the long-fruited mulberry plants in the US today are from this source.
At Fruit and Spice Park in 2013, in addition to the tree labeled ‘Himalayan’, the park had two other mulberry trees which were labeled ‘Pakistan’. Park director Chris Rollins told me that the original source of that ‘Pakistan’ was scion wood which AJ Bullard supplied to the Park. So Fruit and Spice Park’s ‘Pakistan’ is the same cultivar that Edible Landscaping nursery distributes under that name. Those ‘Pakistan’ trees at FSP had foliage and fruits that to me were visually indistinguishable from the ‘Himalayan’ tree at the park. But when I compared the flavor of both varieties (which I did repeatedly on many visits to the park), the taste of the ‘Himalayan’ was consistently better than ‘Pakistan’. One day a couple of friends accompanied me, and all three of us agreed that the ‘Pakistan’ fruits were good, but ‘Himalayan’ fruits were REALLY good, definitely several notches better in flavor.
At my own place, I found another difference demonstrating that ‘Himalayan’ and ‘Pakistan’ are different cultivars. I had gotten variety ‘Pakistan’ from Edible Landscaping nursery, and it consistently broke dormancy weeks earlier than the ‘Himalayan’ variety from Fruit and Spice Park. (That’s also a point in favor of growing ‘Himalayan’ rather than ‘Pakistan’ in North Florida, since a mulberry tree that breaks dormancy too early here can be catastrophically damaged if a late freeze occurs.)
Because of the naming confusion between the two varieties and the difficulty in distinguishing them visually, I suspect that at least some of the ‘Himalayan’ plants in the nursery trade are actually the ‘Pakistan’ cultivar sold by Edible Landscaping. Some plants in circulation under the name ‘Himalayan’ might very well be the same cultivar as the ‘Himalayan’ from Fruit and Spice Park, and some could be other cultivars altogether. It’s a confusing situation. Unfortunately I don’t know of any way to distinguish which ones are which (other than either genetic testing, or planting the varieties out side-by-side under identical conditions and observing them for a number of years).
To make matters even more confusing, the last time I visited Fruit and Spice Park in 2019, the variety labels had been removed from the mulberry trees. Hopefully they’ve since been restored, showing which tree is the actual ‘Himalayan’. I’m thinking of calling the selection I have ‘Himalayan FSP’ to distinguish it as the one from Fruit and Spice Park.
Cold Hardiness and Winter Dormancy:
I understand that a lot of the people reading this will be wondering how far north ‘Himalayan’ mulberry can grow. I don’t know the answer to that. When fully dormant, the tree can handle at least some frost, as shown by my trees which took temperatures dipping briefly into the mid to upper twenties F during a couple of freezes this past winter. Because of the uncertainty around cultivar ID, it’s hard to know if reports people have made about the hardiness of ‘Himalayan’ are actually referring to the same cultivar as the one from Fruit and Spice Park. Variety ‘Pakistan’ appears to be related, and Edible Landscaping rates that one as a Zone 7 plant, saying their ‘Pakistan’ tree has handled single digit temperatures when fully dormant. If I had to guess, I’d speculate the cold hardiness of ‘Himalayan FSP’ might likely be in the same range, but we won’t know for sure until a lot more of these trees get planted out in regions where they get exposed to much colder temperatures.
Edible Landscaping nursery reports that early bud break has been a major problem with variety ‘Pakistan’ in the Southeast. As I mentioned, in my limited experience, this seems less a problem with ‘Himalayan FSP’, at least in my area of North Florida. Apparently the winter dormancy period of ‘Himalayan’ mulberry varies depending on where it’s grown. As I mentioned, my first encounter with this variety was in extreme South Florida, and in early February, the tree was not only already in full leaf, it was in the midst of ripening a heavy crop of fruit. I don’t know if that tree went dormant at all that winter. ‘Himalayan’ trees I’ve grown in North Florida (both in pots and in the ground) have usually started breaking dormancy in mid to late February, late enough to escape the danger of extreme freezing temperatures in the majority of winters. Possibly dormancy could be influenced by what rootstock the tree is grafted onto.
I’ve been able to propagate ‘Himalayan FSP’ in summer by rooting semi-hardwood cuttings with a bit of leaf attached, keeping a clear plastic bag over the pot to maintain humidity. I’ve also tried dormant cuttings, and so far that has not been successful for me. Of course, cutting propagation produces own-root plants, which are not ideal in my area because of this variety’s extreme susceptibility to nematode damage.
I’ve had mixed results grafting ‘Himalayan’. The most reliable but also the most labor-intensive method I’ve found is approach grafting. This year, I also had success chip budding onto dormant, unrooted cuttings of rootstock. I plan to experiment much more with that method. I also want to experiment with a variety of rootstock varieties.
I’ve looked at photos and video I took of the original ‘Himalayan’ tree at Fruit and Spice Park, and I don’t see an obvious graft union. I’ve heard that nematodes are much less of a problem in the alkaline lime rock soils of Dade County (where FSP is) than in the sandy soils typical of most of the Florida peninsula so it’s possible that the tree at FSP is own-root. Cutting propagation might be a viable option for trees that will be planted out in lime rock soils like the ones in Dade County.
Non-Precocity of ‘Himalayan FSP’:
Many mulberry varieties are extremely precocious, producing abundant berries on very small trees, even on six-inch tall rooted cuttings in a pot. ‘Himalayan’ doesn’t behave that way – this variety seems to need to grow into a large tree before it decides to start making fruit. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a ‘Himalayan’ plant produce even a single berry while growing in a container. Even my largest tree in the ground, about twelve feet tall and wide in spring 2021, in its first ever fruiting had only had a light crop. Looking closely, it’s clear that there’s a pattern: each branch either had a lot of berries, or it had none. I think the tree is in the process of shifting into fruiting mode, so I’m expecting (hoping) that it’ll have a much larger crop next year. The original tree at Fruit and Spice Park had a very heavy crop, with berries all over the ground, and numerous berries still on the tree in various stages of development.
‘Himalayan FSP’ vs. ‘Skinner’
Another long-fruited mulberry variety which I’m excited about is the one I got from Josh Jamison that we’re calling ‘Skinner’. In a few years I’ll have much more information about the similarities and differences between these two varieties, but here’s what I can say right now.
‘Skinner’ is precocious. My original ‘Skinner’ tree made a number of mulberries while it was still in a three gallon pot. During its second year, the ‘Skinner’ tree fruited heavily while growing in a 7-gallon pot. It might be that ‘Skinner’ could be suitable as a container fruit tree, while ‘Himalayan’ seems unsuited for that usage -it needs to be in the ground to make fruit
The flavor of both of these varieties is excellent. Based on the fruits I’ve sampled so far, I’d rate ‘Himalayan’ as slightly better, with ‘Skinner’ a close second in the contest of best-flavored mulberry. But that may not be a fair comparison – the ‘Skinner’ fruits I’ve eaten were from a three-foot tall plant growing in a seven gallon pot, while the ‘Himalayan’ fruits were from a much larger tree growing in the ground. Some fruit trees produce better quality fruits as the tree gets older and larger. It’s entirely possible ‘Skinner’ fruits from a larger tree growing in the ground will have even better flavor, possibly as good as ‘Himalayan’.
This year, 2021, my potted ‘Skinner’ tree broke dormancy way too early, during the first week of January, while Himalayan waited until mid February before starting to push new growth. The early bud break on ‘Skinner’ might be an effect of my erratic watering of the potted plant. Josh Jamison reported his ‘Skinner’ tree did not break dormancy as early as mine did this year.
I don’t know if ‘Skinner’ is as nematode-susceptible as ‘Himalayan’, but so far I’m very early on in my attempts to propagate ‘Skinner’, and I don’t want to risk any cutting-grown plants yet against the voracious nematodes here.
I’m very excited about the potential of ‘Himalayan FSP’ mulberry. As I said, it’s the best flavored mulberry cultivar I know. We’ll see what happens in future years, but so far it appears that this variety stays dormant late enough in winter that it can be fruited successfully here in North Florida. And even though it is extremely susceptible to root knot nematodes, it seems to be graft-compatible with at least some nematode-tolerant varieties of mulberry. In the future I plan to experiment to to see if mid-season pruning can help it to produce a second crop the same year.
These initial, early experiences indicate that when grafted onto nematode-tolerant rootstock, ‘Himalayan FSP’ might have great potential as a home garden fruit tree, and possibly even as a commercial fruit crop in North Florida and areas with a similar climate.