Che berries are related to mulberries

Che berries are related to mulberries. Photo by Michale Kesl

Che is not the tree it used to be.

Che's thorns are inconsistent

Che’s thorns are inconsistent

At one time there were just he and she Che trees. Then a few decades ago along came a self-fertile seedless Che then Ches grafted onto a close relative the Osage Orange. The he’s and she’s have also escaped from cultivation in North Carolina and coastal Georgia. I do’t think the seedless escape. Ches are planted from about New York south and west. Your best chance of seeing one is in landscaping in the southern half of the United States and up the west coast. Whether to include Che as a wild edible was a bit of a debate. It’s wild in Asia and has been around North America for more than a century thus it was included. One reason why you might not have seen a Che is birds. They aren’t too interested in the berries so they don’t spread the tree around.

Leaf shape can vary from 3 lobs to none

Leaf shape can vary from 3 lobes to none

The Che is native from the Shantung and Kiangson Provinces of China to the Nepalese sub-Himalayas. It was naturalized in Japan many years ago which is  where I first saw one back in the early 70′s. Che (Cudrania tricuspidata) was introduced to France in 1862, England in 1872 and to the United States about 1909. There was one growing at the P. J. Berckman’s Nursery in Augusta Georgia by 1912 and fruiting, which is another issue. Both male and female trees can fruit, she more than he while the grafted seedless fruits the most.

Che benefits from pruning

Che benefits from pruning

The seedless Che is a small tree. The natural species is shrubby and can produce many suckers. By grafting the Che onto an Osage orange a superior single-trunk fruit tree is created. It bears a large crop of red, juicy fruit clusters reminiscent of round mulberries about an inch through, ping-pong ball-ish in size. The flavor is a cross between a mulberry and a fig, which it not remarkable as it is related to both. It is also distantly related to Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis), Jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus), Fig (Ficus spp.), Mulberry (Morus spp.), African Breadfruit (Treculis africana), Paper Mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) and the aforementioned Osage Orange (Maclura pomifera.)

Bonsai Che

Bonsai Che

While the Che has been promoted outside of China as the up-and-coming fruit tree for decades in China its reputation varies from valuable to intolerable. This might be because of erratic thorns. The tree is backup food for the silkworm and the leaves have to be picked by hand which means braving thorns. Worse, the tree is not consistently thorny so there’s no pattern to help you avoid them. Silk made from the leaves, however, are reported to make high quality lute strings of pure tone. The Che is also a favored tree of for bonsai. (On a personal note a life time ago I visited Bonsai Machi in Japan, the heart of the bonsai culture. There were amazing specimens there. There was also a small city laid out with miniature buildings and bonsai tress for landscaping. The effect was to be a giant walking down the street. And when I see specials about bonsai they show specimens I saw some 40 years ago, still alive and craggy.)

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Che berris store well

Besides “Che” the tree is called Cudrania, Chinese Mulberry,  Cudrang, Mandarin Melon Berry, Silkworm Thorn, and Storehousebush (why it is called that no one knows.)  As for the botanical name Cudrania tricuspidata no one knows where Cudrania came from either or what it supposed to mean. It was named by one Dr. Hance in 1877 and he left no clue as to why his chose that name for the genus. I suspect it has something to do with the common name of Cudrang. Tricuspidata means three pointed as in the leaves though even Dr. Hance said the leaves vary so much calling it Tricuspidata was inaccurate. “Che” (said like the Cuban revolutionary) means “stony ground,” a reference to the tree’s natural habitat of poor, dry soil. But it likes warm, rich soil as well.

Incidentally an intergeneric hybrid exist between the Che (Cudrania tricuspidata) and the Osage Orange (Maclura pomifera) called Macludrania hybrida. Mostly from France they were planted in the US National Arboretum in 1960 and have large orange-like fruit and no thorns.  Other than that planting the hybrid seems to have been largely ignored by everyone.

Green Deane’s Itemized Plant Profile: Che

IDENTIFICATION: Cudrania tricuspidata. Deciduous trees to 25 ft. height, often a broad, spreading bush or small tree.  rarely to 60 feet. Immature wood thorny, female trees larger than males. Leaves alternate, resemble mulberry but smaller, thinner, pale yellowish-green, trilobate, with central lobe sometimes twice as long as the lateral lobes, frequently unlobed. Flowers dioecious, male and female flowers on different plants, green, pea-sized. Fruit is aggregate, looks like a round mulberry crossed with a lychee, knotty, ripens to red or maroon-red, juicy, rich red flesh, 3 to 6 small brown edible seeds per fruit. Flavor varies from fig/mulberry cross to watermelon.

TIME OF YEAR: Flowers in late spring or early summer, fruit in early fall in cooler areas, later in warm areas. In warmer areas it is an evergreen. In cooler areas the leaves turn red in the fall and persist.

ENVIRONMENT: Likes a sunny, warm location with rich, well-drained soil but can grow in rocky dirt. Planted in zones 5-9, can tolerate -20F. Treat them like a mulberry tree. Fruit stains like mulberries.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Trees mature early and can produce up to 400 pounds of chewy fruit. Let the fruit stay on the tree until they are soft and dead ripe. Ripening is continuous for about a month. Fruit is eaten out of hand or used like mulberries or figs. Good shelf life.

Grafts are better than raising trees from seeds. Seed planted immediately from ripe fruit germinate at a high rate. Stored seeds must have a period of cool, moist stratification. Plants from seeds can take up to 10 years to fruit. Cloned plants bear very young.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 narf7 December 14, 2012 at 15:21

I have never heard of this fruit. Cheers for sharing a most interesting post and I am off to see if I can get some of this seed to grow here on Serendipity Farms edible food forest!

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2 Green Deane December 14, 2012 at 16:25

yes, it’s a nice addition to a food forest. Get the seedless grafted one.

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3 narf7 December 23, 2012 at 13:10

Not easy here in Northern Tasmania living on a small island at the bottom of a large Island (Australia) where they take their quarantine issues VERY seriously but that won’t stop me trying :)

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4 Anthony December 17, 2012 at 09:17

I just ordered one from edible landscaping. it;s planted and ready to go. I will update when I get some fruits. It’s the grafted one with no need for cross polination.

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5 Survival Gardener January 2, 2013 at 20:38

Great article… I’m fascinated by the fruit since I’m already a big fan of mulberries. I’d love to find a seeded variety for breeding purposes. If anyone comes across some fruit with seeds – please let me know (you can visit my website) – I’ll happily pay shipping. I’ve been starting trees from seed in my food forest for the genetic diversity. Thus far, I’ve only been able to find grafted varieties of che.

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6 Bryan February 15, 2013 at 07:55

Deane, you reccomend the seedless variety.

While i realize the fruit may be more enjoyable or larger, but what are your thoughts regarding the idea of a person eating seedless fruit, and the effects it has on reproductive health? In other words.. is this now hybridized fruit now less nutritious or in a large way far less superior to the seeded version? This question includes all seedless fruit.

Thanks good guy.

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7 Green Deane February 15, 2013 at 11:39

Well… “nutrition” and “superior” are fluid if not ambigious terms. Those who grow these shrubs think the seedless kind produce better fruit and sooner. That also reduce if not eliminates any naturalization it has to the environment.

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8 Guy Livesay March 26, 2013 at 17:34

Got one of these from Edible Landscaping about 10-12 years ago. It produces a LOT each year. This one leans toward the watermelon flavor. Pick the fruit when they’re dead ripe……any earlier and it pretty much has no taste.

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9 Helen September 13, 2013 at 01:44

I bought mine from Edible Landscaping about 3-4 years ago. It has fruit for two years now. But they are unedible. The fruits turns to lovely red color, but they stay very hard like stone. Do you have to wait for few more years before the tree produce edible fruits?

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10 Harold October 3, 2013 at 13:20

I finally have fruit on my 4 year old Che tree that I bought from Edible Landscaping. After reading many posts, I was very confused by the descriptions of the che fruit flavor. Now that I have fruit, I hope to clear this up for anyone else who may also be confused about the flavor. If I had to pick one fruit with similar flavor to che, it would be watermelon. A more detailed flavor would be a mixture between watermelon and honeydew without any tartness at all. I also grow figs, and I must say that the che fruit tastes nothing like figs. Nevertheless, I love the flavor of the che fruit. The texture is a cross between strawberry and raspberry, but closer to the chewiness of a strawberry. Its color is that of a strawberry. Though, it is subtle when it achieves peak ripeness. I hope this helps. By the way, I am in Zone 6b.

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11 Yosemite January 15, 2014 at 03:08

I have plenty of these “trees” and I must say they are VERY INVASIVE! They send out runners all over the place. When stuck by thorns, there seems to be an acid in it, or some such that makes it really burn/sting. I do not know what type (male/female) of plants I have, but I will share them with anyone that wants them. I ask $5.00 USD for my time going out and digging them up (mainly for fighting/dealing with the thorns) and for you to pay postage/shipping and handling. I do not know about shipping/mailing them outside of the US or if there are restrictions on such. Fruit tends to have a bland/mellow flavor in my opinion.

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