Red Mulberry


Its characteristics and application in Wood Bowyery


Now that I've got your attention, let me explain what I 'm talking about. I am very much aware that Osage and Yew are the best known traditional bow woods. Some of us however, simply don't have much access to these historically and admittedly great bow woods. Finding straight, clear Yew or finding straight and clear Osage is almost out of the question. It can be done, but the terms straight and clear are almost mutually exclusive when related to either of the afore mentioned bowyer's gifts. Now, after some of us do our apprenticeship on the straight and easy white wood way, we go looking for character wood and generally have relatively little trouble finding it. If I told you that you could have your cake and eat it too, even if you don't agree unconditionally, you may be able to see my point.

The Mulberry is in my opinion much under utilized as a bow wood. It is a first cousin of Osage Orange and has been widely transplanted across the United States. I was amazed at how much of it I saw recently on a trip to Kentucky. The original trees had been planted in rows, apparently as wind breaks between buildings near freeways. Mulberry grows very rapidly so when the fruit was eaten by birds or had washed into nearby ditches and creeks the dominant species there was, you guessed it, the subject of this article. In most instances when Mulberry escapes cultivation and grows wild it grows so rapidly that it often quickly becomes the only plant growing in the area. It efficiently shades out all competition with its broad leaves. This tree has a tremendous appetite for nitrogen and water. Drainage ditches are the most natural place for such a plant to move in with its predisposition for consuming large quantities of water and nutrients. Given these conditions Mulberry will colonize, overpower the competition and prosper. If you have such a place nearby go look for bow wood. In this situation you will find straight trees with thick growth rings. Friends, I'm not talking about an annual ring that's an eighth of an inch in thickness, it's not unusual to find half inch or thicker rings on trees that are from eight inches, up to approximately a foot in diameter. On one site which I had the occasion to do a wetlands delineation, the Mulberry had overgrown everything except the Osage with which it was mixed on the higher portions of the site. At first glance it was hard to tell the two apart. The bark and leaves of these two species are very similar in color, texture and pattern. They both have a white milky sap, which pours out when the bark is injured. The sap is rough on chain saws and really hard to get out of clothes, so don't wear your new blue jeans when you go to cut one of these trees.

As a bow wood, I place Mulberry on the same plane with the rest of the premium species, for several reasons. For one it works with tools much the same as Osage. At this point I'll tell you that on the average Mulberry is not quite as dense as the run of the mill piece of Osage. I find more variation between individual trees within either species than the average difference between the two species themselves. Location of the tree and the conditions it has had to contend with have much to do with the texture of the wood. The wood generally seems to be a little lighter in weight than Osage. It shares the bendability of Osage when using steam and or heat but for a bowyer jaded from too many confrontations with paper thin rings, here is an alternative. I have seen quite a few bows with a fixed handle built from three growth rings. You can find Mulberry with thin rings too. Just cut a mature tree, away from a choice growth site and the outer growth rings can be twelve or many more to the inch. That's still very workable in my book. As the tree matures, some grow over 30 inches in diameter, the wood will become progessively more dense in the outer one half of the wood, the rings will be tighter also.

Mulberry will frequently have a much thicker sapwood than Osage will. Sometimes the sapwood will be up to one and a quarter inches in depth before it turns to the yellow brown heart wood. The heart wood is as beautiful as any bow wood we will ever use, in my opinion. It has the same basic yellow color as Osage and has the same depth, when finished. It also oxidizes in the same manner as Osage, when exposed to sunlight. Mulberry seems to be just a little more brown than Osage is after exposure to sunlight to me.

I build many of my Mulberry bows by removing the sapwood the day I cut the tree. Don't just remove the bark to the sap wood and then leave it exposed to the air. If you do, your bow stave will crack all the way to the heart and may be ruined. I rough out the bow, then reflex it over a form about two to three inches. Working wood freshly cut wood is the way to go in my experience. If you want to go on and get a durable bow built quickly, this is the way. It's not the way passed down traditionally but try it sometime if you need a pleasant surprise. The character of any wood you don't work up right away will change rapidly as the moisture level drops. There probably are some woods which can't be worked soaking wet but I am still looking for one. Anyway, I then dry the bow on the form until it is at approximately seven or eight per cent moisture level. If you dry Mulberry in this manner you had better secure it to the form, other wise you may have a bow that looks like a snake climbing up a hogwire fence. That's pretty crooked and twisted up if you not seen that, by the way. By doing any bending with heat at this point while the wood is saturated, then securing it to a jig you can save a step later. The job of straightening will be easier at this point if it's required at all.

Mulberry is a confidence builder for those of us who are not yet accustomed to following a single ring on a stave's back. I was shown a piece of Osage before I ever knew a bow could be built from Mulberry, shortly after I built my first Hickory self bow. My reaction was about like the one you have seen when a new vegetable is sprung on a kid at dinner time. I absolutely could not believe that you followed one ring the whole way from end to end. That wood sat there while I built several more hickory bows. I was intimidated, stalled and stuck between the gears. From time to time I remember picking up that piece of Oklahoma Osage, looking at it and then putting it back down after scratching on it, in less than in a totally comitted fashion, I might add. One day at the library I ran onto a copy of The Adventurous Bowmen. After reading it awhile I saw where Mulberry was used and was rated highly as a bow wood. As luck would have it, on the way home a day or so later, I saw a line crew about to cut what turned out to be about a 14 inch diameter Mulberry down. The tree had grown up in a fence, under and through and all in a power line. It had probably been planted there by a bird. I asked if I could have the tree, the boss gave me permission on the spot. The crew topped it and left the first fifteen feet of trunk standing, then left. I raced home, came back with my saw and cut that tree down before dark. It split about with about half the effort of Hickory. Not too long after that there were several nice bows built in, various styles and they're still being shot today. I've shot tournaments with them and killed several deer with them too. From my experience with this wood, the boys in that book were sure right.

Mulberry is lighter than Osage, therefore if you're using a similar design to an Osage bow the one made of Mulberry will have substantially less hand shock. I've built Mulberry bows in many different designs and not yet had a failure with this wood. This is in part because any pins and imperfections are well supported by the thick growth rings. It's been my experience that Mulberry will let you get by with more than Osage in in the area of not having to raise the knots which you encounter. This wood can often be just as snarley, knotty and have as much character and performance as any Osage you've ever seen or worked with.