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Our daughter, Sarah, recently texted us: “Took a new walk. Found purple splotches all over road. U know what that means.” Indeed, we did … mulberries! Sarah and her family live across the hollow from us, on our 38 acres in Botetourt County, Virginia. We’ve passed our passion for foraging down to Sarah, and where we live, wild mulberry trees are uncommon. Finding a new source, any source, of the native red mulberry (Morus rubra) is always scintillating news.
Folks who haven’t eaten mulberries may not understand our enthusiasm for this summer fruit. After all, aren’t mulberries just another edible in a season that boasts numerous delicious wild fruits, such as raspberries, wineberries, blackberries, dewberries, and blueberries? Although we gather all of those delicacies, none are as sweet as the reddish-purple fruits of the mulberry tree.
Finding a Tree
We were too excited to text back and forth with our daughter, so we called and asked for directions to the tree. Elaine also selected a jar of blackberry jam from the pantry to bring with us. In rural southwest Virginia where we live — and, we believe, across America — a polite request to forage on someone’s property is often granted. But we also feel that such a generous allowance should be rewarded with a gift, thus the jam.
After driving down a rural back road, we didn’t have any trouble finding the place; we easily spotted the splotches along the road when we came within about 50 yards. We likewise easily located the tree that was the source of the stains. A few minutes later, the landowner and Bruce had quickly and amiably made a deal: permission to pick fruit throughout mulberry season, which usually lasts two or three weeks, in exchange for the jam. “Don’t bother to call, just come on over,” he said. He even granted us permission to use his ladder every time we came.
Mulberry trees feature heart-shaped leaves with a rough feel and rounded teeth around the edges (though the leaves can be variable, and are sometimes smooth). The reddish-brown bark isn’t particularly diagnostic. Over the years, most of the trees we’ve found have been growing in the understory and have reached around 20 to 30 feet tall, though this species can grow to more than twice that size. The species is native throughout the eastern and central United States, and has been planted in many western states. Often, the trees grow in moist areas, such as river and creek bottoms. But they also grow along fence rows and rural roads, as the one Sarah found does.
Best to Use Them Up
As delicious as the dark berries are, keep these cautions in mind. One is that the berries are poor keepers. We always prefer to prepare them the same day we gather them. And the tough green stems that mulberries hang from are one of the fruit’s main aggravations. Destemming mulberries is a time-consuming process, but it’s well-worth the effort. You’ll have to pinch off all the stems or use tiny scissors to clip them. We usually hire Sarah’s two sons, 8-year-old Sam and 6-year-old Eli, to perform this unpleasant task. Our initial going rate was a nickel for every cup of berries the boys destemmed. However, our grandsons quickly deduced that a nickel wasn’t a fair wage for the labor required. After a fair amount of negotiation, the boys settled on compensation of a dime per cup, plus a mulberry muffin or smoothie for each of them when the entire task was accomplished — a good deal for all parties.
Maintaining Tree Stands
Although mulberries are often an understory tree, they do benefit from timber stand improvement, or “TSI,” as it’s often called. In fact, performing TSI is beneficial to just about any tree that bears nuts or berries. Also called “daylighting” or “freeing up,” TSI involves cutting down any tree within a bearing tree’s drip line — leveling any flora growing within the outer circumference of the preferred species. This action allows a tree to receive more sunlight, to spread its crown, and, ultimately, to produce more fruits or nuts.
Throughout the year, Bruce often walks our land, looking for white and red oaks to free up. He does the same for fruit and berry producers, such as persimmons, pawpaws, and wild cherries, as well as soft mast producers, such as dogwoods, black gums, and haws. Since mulberry trees prefer shade, restrict your cutting to smaller trees within the drip line and leave, for example, an oak living outside the drip line that’s providing shade.
Elaine prepares mulberries in numerous ways, but her clafoutis, scones, and smoothies are Bruce’s favorites. Here are the recipes for those delights, as well as other scrumptious ways to enjoy desserts made with this native berry.
- Mulberry Clafoutis Recipe
- Mulberry Scones Recipe
- Mulberry Pie Recipe
- Mulberry Smoothie Recipe
- Mulberry Muffins Recipe
- Mulberry Waffles Recipe
Bruce and Elaine Ingram are the authors of Living the Locavore Lifestyle, a book about hunting, fishing, and gathering food (with recipes). To purchase a signed, dedicated copy, contact them at BruceIngramOutdoors@Gmail.com.
Why buy expensive berries from the supermarket when you can grow a bumper crop right outside your door? Homegrown Berries covers the entire process, from planting to picking that first nutritious, luscious fruit. You’ll learn the best varieties for your region, how to fit them into your landscape, and how to maintain them for peak harvest year after year.
This title is available at the Grit store or by calling 866-803-7096. Item #7613.