I love eating. I love nature. I love eating nature.
Among the most overlooked and underappreciated of these is the mulberry.
Not everyone has a taste for mulberries. My wife and daughter could do without them. As a matter of fact, just last week my two-year-old took a bite out of one, handed me the rest of it and in disgust said, “Here. You eat it.” She hasn’t touched one since.
Those of us who enjoy mulberries appreciate the subtle fleshiness of the fruit and the unforgettable flavor that is at once sweet and tart. They are so juicy that they often pop in your mouth when you bite into them.
Every year I collect the berries in volume and have a quarter-quart as my morning and afternoon snacks at work over their two-week peak.
If you do that, be sure to have a toothbrush handy in your desk as the juices tend to darken your teeth, just as they do your hands when picking and eating them.
Similarly, if you go out and pick them, be sure to wear old shoes that you can leave on your porch or in your mudroom. When mulberries are at their peak the ground below a mulberry tree will be littered with overripe berries and you will step on them. You don’t want to be bring that dye into your home and stain your carpets or woodwork.
Where to find them
Mulberry trees can be found mostly in the agricultural areas of Eastern Niagara County, especially those with dairy farms in the immediate vicinity. It won’t be often that you’ll find them in woodlots.
If you want to find a mulberry tree, narrow your search to within a half-mile of a dairy farm and look for them in hedgerows and along “natural” hedgerows (like creek edges). These are places where the farm starlings will roost and defecate – it is their droppings that spread mulberry seeds and ensure future generations of trees. I guess starlings are good for something.
Mulberry trees can also naturally appear in lawns. That’s because the robin, one of our most common backyard birds, is an avid devourer of mulberries, and they, like starlings will plop the seeds in their stomping grounds.
Do you want a cue that there are likely mulberries in your neighborhood? Check the hood of your car this week or next. If there are bird droppings on it that are deeply purple, chances are your feathered friend had mulberries for dinner.
What to look for
Mulberry trees are relatively short trees. They are 20- to 50-feet tall and can start producing fruit at about 15-feet in height (which is why you’ll need an a-frame ladder if you are serious about harvesting them).
The bark of the trees is furrowed, even scaly, and not the least bit smooth.
The tree has a spreading crown (it doesn’t grow straight up like, say, a tulip tree) and has been known to be planted as a shade tree for that reason.
In the spring, mulberry trees produce greenish, spiked flowers than can be up to two-inches long. They gradually turn into fruits which first look white, become pink-red, and then turn a deep purple – almost black – when ripe. The fruits are one- to one-and-a-half-inches long. When picking them, a small bit of green stem will remain atop the fruit. That stem is edible and will do nothing to either improve or ruin the flavor of the fruit.
The fruits might start to become ripe around July 1, but really don’t become so until the second and third weeks of July. It’s rare that you will see any into August.
Interesting and miscellaneous facts
The red mulberry is native to North America and we are just at the very northern edge of its range. It is the one you are least likely to find in your travels in Niagara County.
Mulberries aren’t berries, they are collective fruits. But for layman’s sake, throughout this column, I identified them improperly as people have for centuries.
It is highly encouraged that you thoroughly wash mulberries before eating them due to the likelihood of starling droppings on them. Starlings are not the cleanest birds.
Mulberries can eaten raw or put in pies, jams and jellies. They are quite tasty when served warm over dumplings/biscuits. My favorite treat is to top vanilla ice cream with them.
Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he doesn’t mind robins spreading their droppings in his lawn, hoping that they become mulberry trees. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can follow him on Twitter @bobconfer.
From the 10 July 2014 East Niagara Post