Ring around the mulberry bush

It looks like a blackberry, but it grows on a tree—no brambles!

It looks like a blackberry, but it grows on a tree—no brambles!

Over the past several centuries, Americans have planted and improved their continent with hundreds of fruits, both native and from the Old World. We’ve brought to these shores stone fruits, apples, wine grapes, walnuts, pistachios, pomegranates, citrus, persimmons and figs. We even imported the devilish Himalayan blackberry.

But strangely, we’ve never welcomed the mulberry into our lives and landscape. This tree fruit, though astonishingly abundant in southeast Europe and the Middle East, where everyone loves mulberries, is conspicuously absent in California. I can’t understand why, because the berries are outstanding—far better, in my mind, than blackberries.

During a recent visit to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wolfskill Experimental Orchards near Winters, I tasted through 40-something mulberry varieties with the orchard’s manager, Howard Garrison. On each tree, thousands of white, pink and purple fruits dangled from the branches. The Kokuso No. 20, a berry about an inch and a half in length and plum purple, was particularly sweet and juicy, but Garrison urged me onward, saying, “You haven’t seen anything yet.”

That’s because the king of mulberries—the Pakistan—was just down the row, dangling 3-inch berries from its branches. I reached into its leaves and picked several the size of my middle finger. In my mouth, the tart, fruity, sweet juices confirmed that the Pakistan mulberry is not only the biggest of its kind, but the best.

“I can’t believe no one has commercially grown it yet,” Garrison mused. We moved on to try more, but he said, “The Pakistan will ruin you. You won’t want to taste any others.”

But the Thomson—a thimble-shaped pink mulberry—was excellent, mildly sweet like cotton candy. And a variety of Morus nigra—a separate species—had slender, magenta berries that tasted like Sauterne dessert wine.

The mulberry season should continue into July, but the trees are hard to find. Semiwild roadside specimens may be harvested at scattered locations, but the surest way to enjoy mulberries in California is to grow your own tree. Might as well make it the Pakistan.

Visit the California Rare Fruit Growers’ website for more information on acquiring cuttings, grafting, and propagating at www.crfg.org.