A “Gateway” Fruit You Need to Try…And Then Share
In medicine and public health, we often talk about “gateway drugs”, which are often legal, or misused legal substances that young people or vulnerable adults often first start using, and then it leads to even more dangerous substances and abuses. For instance, preteen recreational (non-ceremonial) tobacco smoking often leads to teenage alcohol abuse, or misused prescription opioids often can lead to heroin use.
Thankfully though, there are some healthy, beneficial gateways. Items that while they can impact adults, they also have a special ability to root into toddler and childhood minds. One nourishing “gateway” fruit is the mulberry, and taking heed, picking, and eating it can have a lasting impact on young Native minds to remind us of “where it all really comes from.”
Indeed, as author Sara Bir eloquently says in her book, The Fruit Forager’s Companion, “ Mulberries are trees of memory, if you happened to grow up around one. There will never be mulberries sweeter and juicier than the ones gathered from a tree that grew where you played during your childhood.”
First are some basics to review. While you can “google” a picture of mulberries, they are hard to imagine until you see one for real. Imagine a full bunch of purplish black grapes. Then, imagine the entire bunch shrunk down to a very tight cluster about 1-2 inches long. The shrunk grapes are still juicy, but smaller than a BB. This is what a mulberry looks like, and you can eat the entire bunch, including the small ¼ inch stem that inevitably comes off when you pick them or shake them off a tree. They will be sweet, but not overwhelmingly sweet like a ripe blackberry. Rather, the taste is sweetness quickly balanced and tempered with an earthy, pleasant leafy taste.
One other key caveat-look at your hands. They will have a fairly stubborn purple black stain. Mulberries are well known, dare I say, notorious, for their stains, and even the stains that come from the birds that eat them and then kindly leave their “residue” on your car. In old times this led to mulberries use as a dye.
Mulberries also serve as a “gateway fruit” via their timing. While not ripe quite as early as strawberries, mulberries typically ripen sooner than wild blackberries and raspberries. So, when everyone has “spring fever” and is ready to head outside, mulberries can be a great part of the outing. Here in North Carolina, I usually start the mulberry search in earnest around Memorial Day. Thankfully, because the mulberry leaves and fruit emerge mainly in mid to late Spring, early Spring frosts do not cause mulberry fruit trouble like peaches and even blueberries.
Many people who have heard of mulberries often mistakenly think the tree is solely an “import”, or part of the failed attempt in the early 1800’s by people to set up a silk industry like China’s in the US. However, there are 4 mulberry species in the US. Please note though even if the Latin name mentions a color, such as “alba” for white, or “rubra” for red, this does not mean that particular tree solely bears that color fruit! Also, the Morus rubra mulberry tree is indigenous to North America. See…not all invasive imports!
-Morus alba- The Asian mulberry. Confusingly, most (but not all) of the ripe fruits are purple/black.
-Morus rubra-The American mulberry. Tends to be be more shade/forest tolerant than the Asian mulberry.
-Morus nigra-This plant is rarely found in the wild, and has mostly been imported from other countries due to its ultra large fruit size-often approaching 3 inches. It is not very cold tolerant. Also, its mulberries usually ripen in late summer, unlike the others.
-Morus microphylla- They say everything is bigger in Texas…except for maybe this small southwestern US mulberry. It is a scrappy small tree/large shrub that has small, almost stunted fruits.
Regardless of the mulberry species you are enjoying, you can enjoy them a variety of ways. Obviously fresh eating is popular. The fruits are easily crushed, so don’t pile them too high in your container. They will usually keep in the fridge for 3-5 days before becoming too ripe. Furthermore, mulberries taste great (think a large chewy raisin) when dried in a dehydrator. These dried fruits can pack your child’s lunchbox for several months if kept sealed in a cool, dry place after dehydrating. Lastly, mulberries make a unique jam,that is more sweet then elderberry jelly but not so sappy sweet as blackberry jam. It is the perfect blend of “sweet earthiness.”
Lastly, all botany aside, the most amazing and impressive thing about the mulberry is its extreme giving nature. The trees yield an immense amount of fruit in an amazingly short time from trees that are not huge. Many elders commented on the breadth of animals that loved mulberries and their obvious affinity for these berries. The deep love that birds have for mulberries was repeatedly mentioned with respect. Astoundingly though without fail, the hordes of birds, squirrels and the like never take all of the mulberries, and if you look you can still find some for your enjoyment. One elder even has taken to a personal mulberry propagation plan by wrapping strong appearing berries in small bread balls to further enhance bird uptake and the reciprocal survival of the seeds. This is a prime example of working hard to complete The Circle and certainly qualifies as a true “O.I.T- Old Indian Trick!”
In summary, mulberries are a great gateway fruit to get kids back into traditions. However, their strength and presence is not “kid’s play.” They are a gift to be respected and cherished, as well as a prime chance to see the connections between trees and animals. Perhaps by seeing this stunning interdependence we all can be less physically, mentally, and spiritually distanced from plants.
1. Bir, Sara. The Fruit Forager’s Companion. As mentioned before a supreme plant foraging and cooking reference, especially for urban Indians.
2. Thayer, Samuel. Incredible Wild Edibles- 36 Plants that can change your Life. Thayer raises a stout defense of the American mulberry and its false lumping with Asian mulberries. Must reading for anyone wanting to truly walk in botanical beauty with the mulberry!
3. The NC Native Ethnobotany Project Interviews. Nearly everyone unleashed a wry smirk when discussing mulberries fondly saying, “The birds, yes, the birds love some mulberries!” And now you will too, thanks to their wisdom. Now get off the computer and go show some kids their new gateway fruit!