They’re everywhere in summertime: Mulberry trees with berries the size of your thumb raining down upon you by the hundreds, and there’s another tree just like it every 10 feet. Branches are loaded down with fruit and are pouring out onto sidewalks, lawns, park benches, and meadows. Mulberry trees produce fruit in such a staggering quantity, I often wonder how there could possibly be starvation on the same planet where mulberries exist. The trees are prolific, and their fruit is delicious, incredibly nutritious, and best of all, free for the taking in lots of cases.
Yet people seem to despise them. Most often the complaints relate to stained sidewalks, fruit pulp tracked into the house on the soles of shoes, and lots and lots of purple bird poop on cars. Another complaint I hear about the mulberry is that they are an invasive species that competes with indigenous trees for space and nutrients, but this is only partially correct.
The red mulberry (Morus rubra), the one responsible for all of the magenta-hued avian excrement on your windshield, is indeed indigenous to eastern North America. Native Americans utilized the fruit as a food source and relied on other parts of the tree and its foliage for a variety of medicinal purposes. The white mulberry (Morus alba), on the other hand, was in fact introduced from Asia in a failed attempt to kick-start an American silk industry, as the leaves of white mulberry are the main food source for Bombyx mori, better known as the silkworm.
Because it hybridizes very easily with our own native M. rubra, there is some fear that white mulberry may eventually push red mulberry out altogether. Indeed, white mulberry is making an impact, but much like many other immigrants to this nation over the course of its history, white mulberry has found American soil quite hospitable and has become a contributor to our landscape.
Learning to Love Mulberries
There’s no need to describe where or how to find mulberry trees. If you live in the eastern United States, you’re probably already tripping over them every few feet. The fact is, most people aren’t looking for mulberries — they’re looking for ways to get rid of them. The enlightened among us, on the other hand, are eagerly anticipating the harvest.
The fruit of the red mulberry often gets compared to blackberries and black raspberries, as they are dark purple and grow in clusters. This is a natural comparison, but not a completely fair one, as the fruit of red mulberry has its own unique flavor and texture. Blackberries and raspberries tend to be quite tart, while mulberries tend to be sweeter and more delicate. All are aggregate fruits that contain many seeds. Blackberry and raspberry seeds tend to be hard and get stuck in your teeth, while those of the mulberry are quite tender and pleasantly dissolve into the fruit to the point that one hardly notices them while eating, even when raw.
Harvesting mulberries comes with greater ease as well. Picking a gallon of black raspberries takes hours of finessing oneself through razor-sharp brambles, but you can shake a gallon’s worth of mulberries out of a couple of pleasantly thornless adult trees in 10 minutes. Just lay a tarp down under the tree and start tugging on branches. You may want to use a stepladder or a long hooked stick to reach higher branches of larger trees.
The fruit is at its peak about the middle of June here in southern Indiana, and when berries are good and ripe, a lot will come down with each subtle shake. If you shake gently, you’ll ensure that you don’t get a lot of underripe ones, which will be too tart to enjoy for most palates. The very ripe fruit is what you’re after, and it will give way easily to the slightest disturbance. Save only the darkest, softest and largest berries for eating. If they’re ripe, there will be more than enough that there will be no reason to save anything but the best fruit. If you have chickens, they will be happy to dispose of the underripe ones and cast-offs for you.
Wild mulberry flavor can vary quite a bit, even among a single species. One tree may produce fruit that is extremely sweet and juicy, while another tree nearby may produce dense berries that are less sweet, or even thin and watery. If you’re in a location where there are several trees to choose from, taste the fruits of a few and collect the best ones first. With red mulberries, it is no surprise that the larger and darker the fruit, the sweeter and more superior the flavor. These tend to be mature trees with good sun exposure on at least one side. Red and white mulberries have their own distinct taste, but both, along with their hybrid offspring, are excellent. Personally, I prefer whites and mixes for eating raw, and reds for cooking and storing.
In addition to being delicious and extremely versatile, mulberries are also a nutritional powerhouse. They contain protein and fiber and are high in antioxidants. Studies have shown that they benefit blood pressure regulation and strengthen the nervous system. White mulberries are considered medicinal in Asia and are becoming popular in the Western Hemisphere as a “superfood.” A 16-ounce bag of dried white mulberries can fetch 15 dollars or more in U.S. health-food stores. Though they lack the high amount of vitamin A contained in acai berries, red mulberries provide a wider range of vitamins and provide just as much dietary fiber per serving. Mulberries also contain beneficial Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids, which the coveted — and expensive — acai berries do not.
There is virtually no limit to the things you can do with mulberries. Even so, simply eating them fresh is my favorite method. I love taking my kids for mulberry forays in the peak season and letting them scarf down as many of the nutritious fruits as they can before their blood sugar peaks and they start running around with an abundance of energy. We’ll pick enough berries to fill an empty sour cream container every evening, and eat a few handfuls of them with a little yogurt for breakfast nearly every morning. Crumbled black walnuts or sunflower seeds on top really make that concoction sing!
As one would expect, wild mulberries make an excellent substitute for commercial berries. You can use them in most recipes that call for blackberries, raspberries or blueberries in equal quantities. Just remember that they have their own flavor and will lend that je ne sais quoi to the recipe.
The only trouble with mulberries is the small stemlike woody pedicel that comes along with each berry. I tried removing them individually, but that was a terribly exhausting amount of very messy work. I also tried just suffering through and eating them raw with the berry, but it was just too woody to really enjoy. When eating them raw, I now use the pedicel as a handle – pick the fruit up by the pedicel and bite the berry from it, like the stem of a cherry or the greens of a strawberry. The bigger the berry, the better this works. For pies and cobblers I have stopped trimming them altogether. If baked in a pie for an hour or more, they dissolve well enough to not be noticed when eating. This was a grand discovery for me. To no longer need to trim mulberry pedicels meant that I could consume more in less time.
Mulberries can be stored like any other fruit: They can be dried or made into preserves, vinegar, wine, etc. Dried mulberries are a healthy addition to trail mix, especially with other wild foods like hackberries and black walnuts. They also freeze exceptionally well. When we gather them in the summer, I like to put several pounds into big freezer bags of various sizes and keep them in the chest freezer. The larger bags can be portioned out for pies before freezing. You can even freeze the prepared pie filling, and then all you have to do is thaw it, drop it into a pie shell and bake. When I want to make a couple of smoothies, I just grab a small bag from the freezer. There’s no need to thaw them; I just blend the berries frozen, and it lends the treat a nice crushed-ice texture. We trick our kids into eating spinach and other leafy greens by blending them into our mulberry smoothies with bananas.
If you have yet to try these sweet berries of the back roads, grab a pail, make sure you have permission from the landowner, and load it up — and remember to do your part to help control mulberry overpopulation by eating as many as possible!
Clyde Myers lives in Southern Indian with his wife, Amy. He is a foraging instructor and enjoys blogging about wild foods.