Fondness for mulberries

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-115575687325483.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘This delicious fruit of the mulberry tree is ripe for picking.’);

Here we go round the mulberry bush,

The mulberry bush, the mulberry bush,

Here we go round the mulberry bush,

So early in the morning.

This nursery rhyme ditty alludes to the lure of the ripening fruit of the mulberry tree to children (and many adults), and numerous species of birds that delight in feasting upon it. The red mulberry is a native of the eastern half of the United States, and is the largest of about a dozen species found in both the old and new world. It is common in the Rock River Valley.

The white mulberry is a native of China, but it became naturalized in Europe hundreds of years ago. In China, the leaves were used to feed the larvae of silk-producing caterpillars, whose voracious appetites for white mulberry leaves is legendary. The caterpillars were reared on trays and were fed fresh mulberry leaves several times a day. When their life cycle indicated they were to pass into the pupal, or resting, stage, they would spin a silken cocoon about themselves and undergo the transformation into an adult flying moth. The cocoon was unwound by hand, and spun into thread—a tedious process. The French, wanting to get in on the production of silk, imported this tree to feed their silkworms, but they apparently lacked the knowhow to induce the worms to fully cooperate.

The white mulberry was also imported to America in colonial times for silkworm culture. It became adapted to conditions in the more southern colonies, and after many failures to establish a silk-producing industry in the colonies, the idea was abandoned. The white mulberry flourished and spread to other parts of the country, where it frequently hybridized with the native red species. The tree derives its name from the color of its buds, as its fruit may be white, pink or an almost purple-black.

The black mulberry is native to western Asia, and has been grown in Europe for its fruit since the time of the Romans. It has been mainly cultivated in the United States on the Pacific coast, but they grow well in tubs and are used as ornamentals.

Mulberries like a location that receives a lot of sunshine, and they need adequate space. They should not be planted near a sidewalk as the fallen, ripe fruit will badly stain the walkway and may be tracked indoors to the discernment of the housewife. Mulberries are very resistant to wind and, in some parts of the Midwest, have been planted as wind breaks.

Botanically speaking, the fruit of the mulberry is not a berry, but a collective type. When the flowers are pollinated, they and their bases begin to swell and accumulate an abundance of juice. As noted, the color of the fruit is not used for identification of a specific mulberry. The most common one in this area is the native red mulberry, which produces a mature fruit that is almost black. Most mulberry connoisseurs agree the fruit of the black mulberry is the most desirable for eating. It has a pleasant balance between sweetness and tartness, whereas the white mulberry’s fruit is too sweet for the taste buds of many. On the other hand, the red mulberry’s fruit has a nice balance between the other two. When eating red mulberry fruits, the slight tartness somehow reminds me of grapefruit.

An interesting note is that a hybrid between red and white mulberries originated in White County, Ill., in 1958. The fruit of this cultivar, as a cultivated plant hybrid is sometimes called, is nearly seedless and quite large, averaging about 12 to an ounce. The flavor is very good, and some consider it the best of all.

Mulberries can be made into delicious pies, jellies and jams, or, of course, they can be enjoyed raw. Mulberries were frequently fermented into illegal wine during the prohibition era, but I doubt if even mountain people engage in that practice today to any great extent.

I have been fond of mulberries and what can be made from them all my life. As a boy, my grandmother’s housekeeper and cook would take me to “the woods” during the summer to gather mulberries. She would place an old sheet on the ground around the base of the tree, and I would assist her in violently shaking the tree, causing the mulberries to rain down and collect on the sheet. The mulberry cobbler she made was enjoyed by all members of the family.

My mother always knew where I had been that particular afternoon, as my lips and mouth were stained a deep purple that persisted for a day or two.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the Aug. 16-22, 2006, issue

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