Berry go round
It’s time for the sweet-as-honey mulberry to make a comeback
Over the past several centuries, Americans have adorned and improved their continent with all manner of tree fruits native to the Old World. We’ve done well, bringing to these shores stone fruits, apples, walnuts, wine grapes, pistachios, pomegranates, figs and so many more. We even imported the devilish Himalayan blackberry, a beast foul in every way but for the sweet-and-sour berries it pushes out each summer.
How it is, then, that we’ve never welcomed the mulberry—Morus alba—into our lives and landscape is a question to ponder. In southeast Europe, almost every household has a mulberry tree or two that produce thousands of berries every summer. Highways are flanked by sporadic mulberry trees, providing a free-for-all bounty in places. People eat them fresh, dry them to sell by the kilo, and make them into wine.
But in California this fruit is conspicuously absent. Why? The berries are arguably better than blackberries—sweet as honey, sometimes with a nip of acid, and without those aggressive tannins.
Surely, the sticky, jammy mess that the trees make on the ground under the trees has spurred many a property owner to cut down his or her mulberry tree. But most Californians are simply unfamiliar with mulberries, according to farmer Cliff Kime. A blackberry and tree fruit farmer in Gridley, Kime is among the only local growers to sell mulberries each summer, which he does at the Saturday farmers market in downtown Chico.
“A lot of people have a story from when they were little about ‘the mulberry tree down the street,’ but most people ask me what they are,” said Kime, whose berries come from four volunteer trees that sprang up spontaneously over the years. On three of the trees the berries are black, while one produces white berries. Unfortunately, Kime is done harvesting his mulberry crop, which began in May, and for those wishing to taste mulberries this July, some roadside foraging may be in order.
To understand just what the mulberry is all about, I recently paid a visit to an orchard in Winters maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This collection is home to 3,000 varieties of grapes, several hundred of walnuts, 300 of figs, dozens of persimmons, and about 40 of mulberries.
The orchard’s manager, Howard Garrison, led me through the 30-foot-tall trees, whose branches were loaded with berries, interspaced among the distinctive spade-shaped leaves. Several trees in, we sampled the Kokuso-20 mulberry, a fine fruit about an inch-and-a-half in length and plum purple. It was sweet and juicy—but Garrison urged me onward, saying, “You haven’t seen anything yet.”
Because the king of mulberries, M. alba pakistani, was just down the line, dangling thousands of three-inch berries from its branches. I reached up into the leaves and picked several the size of my middle finger.
“They’re smaller this year because of the cold,” Garrison observed.
As we tussled with the branches, the elongate fruits precipitated from the foliage. I took in a mouthful, and they exploded with sweet, slightly tart juice spiked with a dazzling Froot Loops flavor. Indeed, this mulberry is not only the biggest of its kind; it is by most opinions the very best.
“I can’t believe no one has commercially grown it yet,” Garrison said. We moved on to try more, but he said, “The Pakistan will ruin you. You won’t want to taste any others.”
But we found several more exceptional ones. The Thomson mulberry, a thimble-shaped pink berry, was sweet, juicy and mild as cotton candy. And a variety of Morus nigra, a separate species, had outstanding fruit—long, slender berries that tasted like Sauternes dessert wine.
The mulberry season is now tapering off, but many trees will continue bearing through July and even into August. Those with a sharp eye may find semi-wild roadside trees free for the harvesting (watch for the telltale stains from fallen fruit on the pavement below, then look up).
But the surest way to consistently enjoy this fruit is to grow a tree. Make it the Pakistan mulberry. Visit the California Rare Fruit Growers’ website (www.crfg.org) for more information on varieties, grafting and propagation.