Jim McGuire: Mulberries along the creek

On a recent morning, I happened to be checking out a certain pool on Greenville Creek when I came across a pair of mulberry trees loaded with ripe fruits.

Nowadays, I’m prone to take advantage of almost any excuse to loiter. Beside, it had been several hours since breakfast. So I sat my rod and tackle pouch on the grassy bank and commenced gathering.

I’m a lifelong fan of mulberries!

I probably began picking up and eating dropped mulberries about the time I learned to walk. Not too long after that, I was climbing into the trees themselves, plucking berries off any reachable limb.

My maternal grandparents lived just up the block. A time or two every day, Mom and I walked up the street for a visit.

A huge old mulberry dominated Grandpa’s side yard. The biggest example of its kind I’ve ever seen. An enormous, ancient tree—at least for a species not typically attaining great size or age.

During those weeks when the juicy and highly-staining purple-black berries were ripe, my long-suffering mother knew that in order to keep me from looking too much like a Dickens street urchin, she’d have to vigorously scrub my hands and face with a soapy washcloth afterwards. It was also likely I’d need a full change of clothes.

Though I tried to avoid this ignominious fate, no amount of sputtering howls dissuaded her from her motherly scourings. Neither did my added clamor and nuisance deter the frequency of our trips.

What a wonderful blessing that Mom understood how irresistible those messy mulberries were to a small boy, and willing to allowing me such freedoms. She wisely knew treasured memories of those halcyon adventures were more important than keeping me clean.

Another mulberry tree, almost as large as the one in Grandpa’s yard, grew near the rear corner of our next-door neighbor’s dilapidated garage. Many of its berry-laden branches spread high over the disused alley.

This tree provided a second handy foraging source. But it was the bane of Mom’s laundry-drying endeavors—a fate also shared by other nearby families.

In those days, during all but the coldest months, clothes were hung on outside lines to dry. Birds feeding on ripe mulberries naturally passed overhead—and just as naturally did what overstuffed birds, straining to remain airborne, are prone to do as they flap along.

Anything that got purplebombed could, of course, be rewashed. But light-colored items, especially white blouses and dress shirts—“good clothes” —would forever retain at least a faded version of the tell-tale purple polka-dot splotches, regardless of strong lye soap and vehement rubbing on the washboard.

In addition to these two trees, there were at least a dozen mulberries bordering the scraggly woodlot across the road. Plus other trees scattered through the neighborhood.

Mulberries weren’t uncommon. By the time I hit my bike-riding, free-ranging teenage years, I was roaming far and wide, and had located and often sampled mulberries from every tree I could find within a five-mile radius!

Frankly, I wouldn’t try to guess the countless hours I’ve spent collecting and eating mulberries over the years. But never once have I thought my foraging time wasted.

Mulberries are delicious— sweet and juicy, filled with a distinct and wonderful flavor. Right up there with blackberries in my book!

Over the years I’ve made mulberry pies and cobblers, mulberry jam and jelly, mulberry sauce, mulberry shakes, mulberry wine and cordial. I’ve dried mulberries and added them to cookies, breads and granola—and I’ve even reduced the juice down into chewy black strips of mulberry “leather.”

Anything you can do with blackberries, raspberries, strawberries or blueberries, you can substitute and do with mulberries.

So why aren’t mulberries more sought out and appreciated?

Mulberries are easy to gather. There are no stabbing, blood-drawing briars to negotiate. You can often place a plastic tarp under a mulberry tree, give the trunk or branches a good shake, and end up with several gallons of mulberries for your brief efforts.

It’s not the fruit’s taste or versatility that seems to be the cause of mulberries being almost universally overlooked.

Nature writer and well-known forager Euell Gibbons speculates this lack of interest may be due to the fruit’s persistent stem which extends partway into the mulberry. Folks don’t like the way it looks, yet are too lazy to spend the time nipping the stems off before serving.

He could be right. However, I don’t find them off-putting, and never bother removing when serving a dish of fresh mulberries, plopping a handful into the blender for a quick drink or employing as a topping for ice cream. Fruits used to make jellies, wines and sauces get strained. I do pluck them preparatory to drying.

The mulberries from my creekside trees were sweet. I sat comfortable and content quite a while, enjoying several handfuls, savoring both their flavor and the memories invoked.

Meanwhile, cicadas whirred from leafy branches overhead, while the creek’s jade waters whispered of journeying. So I listened and fed thoughtfully on my nature-provided lunch. Honestly, mulberries should never be ignored.