Mulberry mecca

Who knew shopping for mulberries was impossible?

Try not to go round the mulberry bush. Just eat one, OK?

Try not to go round the mulberry bush. Just eat one, OK?

When I rode my bicycle through Greece in May and June of 2006, I quickly became familiar with a fruit so abundant that I ate it by the quart daily, smashed it into juice and tramped inadvertently through piles of the fallen fruits under the trees from which they grew. These small morsels, sweet and mild as cotton candy and as boundless as blackberries, were unknown to me when I first sampled them, and for two months I ate them like there would be no tomorrow, for I believed that once I left Greece I might never see a mulberry again.

However, mulberries have done well in California where given the chance. Throughout the Central Valley, mulberry trees dot roadways and property lines and now stand as tall as 70 feet, though most serve either as windbreaks or as fruit-bearing decoys for rampaging birds that would otherwise destroy cherry or apricot crops.

But mulberries, so cherished in Eastern Europe and Asia, are rarely eaten here. I’ve often seen the neglected bounty accumulated on local driveways and doorsteps. It breaks my heart.

It breaks Dan Bayer’s, too. He moved here from his native Turkey in 1955, a 20-something fresh out college and in love with mulberries. He found none to eat, however, upon his arrival, and for several years he went without, a brutal stint of abstinence.

Today he recalls the fruit’s place in Turkish society. “In Turkey, no one buys mulberries, but everyone eats them,” says Bayer, now a resident of Arcadia, in Los Angeles County, and the foremost mulberry expert with the California Rare Fruit Growers. “It’s a fruit for people with no money. If someone has a mulberry tree and you want the fruit, you can knock on the door and ask, and you can climb up and eat all you want.”

Over several years after leaving Turkey, Bayer acquired trees from other gardeners, and today he grows seven varieties in his yard. His favorite is the Pakistan mulberry, whose fruits grow to a tremendous 5 inches in length. It bears an early crop in April or May, and in warmer regions may produce a second crop in December.

At the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wolfskill Experimental Orchards in Winters, some 80 varieties of mulberry grow among the thousands of fruit and nut trees. The orchard’s mulberries occur among three species.

The collection, says resident USDA mulberry expert Jenny Smith, has been amassed over the years through excursions to the Middle East and from hobbyist collectors in California and farms in Australia, where a substantial industry operates. Locally, says Smith, the alba varieties begin to ripen in early May. Later cultivars enter maturity through June and July.

Shopping for mulberries may be nearly impossible. All sources said they know of no places—not even farmers’ markets or fruit stands—that sell fresh mulberries. Only the Davis Food Co-op sells the fruits, though they are dried, packaged and imported from Asia.

But those who take a cue from Bayer and get neighborly this summer along the farm roads of the valley just might wind up in the branches of someone else’s mulberry trees. And, with some persistence, you may find yourself sampling multiple varieties in multiple trees, from the soft and gentle alba sorts to the often tart and acidic nigra varieties, delicious yet infamous for bursting with black juice at the merest touch. And should you find yourself a lover of this elusive fruit, a tasting tour to Asia Minor—the mulberry mecca—may be next.

Tip: Joe Real, a fruit enthusiast featured previously for his multigrafted backyard orchard (see “Gone bananas;” SN&R Homegrown; December 24, 2009) recommends making mulberry wine. Bayer boils mulberries down into a “molasses” each summer. Others make mulberry jams, and some make pies—but you mustn’t do any of the above until you’ve tasted the fruit fresh.