Good Plant, Bad Plant

By Erlin Guerrero

Two plants have played an outsized role in Cuba since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which devastated Cuban agriculture. White mulberry, introduced in Cuba in 2012 by Fidel Castro, provides shade and supplements for animal food, and, he said,  would increase production of eggs, meat, milk and silk. Marabu, by contrast,  is the evil weed that has taken over one-third of Cuba after arriving in the 18th century.

White mulberry, called morera in Cuba, is mainly used as a supplement for animals, a source of protein and vitamins, containing “80 percent of nutritive value,” one farmer said. It also leads to more frequent defecation, giving farmers more organic compost for their crops.

Yet white mulberry must be fed in careful measures, because its high level of protein could damage or kill animals if they consume too much. Marabu, an aggressive plant, overran the sugarcane fields in the 1990s, and currently covers 4.2 million acres of once-productive land, leaving over one-third of Cuban farms infested and therefore unavailable for production, according to the International Model Forest Network.

Native to South Africa, marabu is both invasive and resilient, and can be uprooted only by heavy machinery, which many farms to do not have. Yet even marabu has its uses. After the détente between Cuba and the United States, highly activated charcoal made from marabu was exported to the United States by Reneo Consulting, an American company.

Cuban farmers value the white mulberry as an animal-food supplement and, because it increases the amount of organic waste, is a source of compost (Photo by Zoe Reda).

Marabu may have other uses. Peter Hall, an energy storage engineering professor, at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, has demonstrated that the carbon made from marabu could be used to “control water pollution and turn into a valuable energy source.” Julian Bell, an agricultural adviser, told the BBC that it might provide a good organic energy source that could supplant some diesel-powered power stations.

As Cubans look into new ways to increase economic growth and draw on all their resources, the export of charcoal may produce significant income. Marabu and morera exemplify Cuban practicality; both plants show the resourcefulness of Cubans, with white mulberry now an essential plant for animal nutrition and marabu, despite being an invasive plant, embraced however cautiously.