Found Fruit

What to do with mulberries that spread their purple essence in the yard? Instead of cursing the mess, a homeowner gets cooking

June 20, 2007|By Harry Merritt | Harry Merritt,Sun Reporter

Here we go round the mulberry bush,

The mulberry bush, the mulberry bush.

Here we go round the mulberry bush,

So early in the morning.

Never in my childhood singing of that cloying Mother Goose nursery rhyme did I imagine that its words would one day have a literal meaning for me.

Yet here I am at first light these June mornings, walking slowly around the large weeping mulberry across from our front door, carefully plucking small, dark berries from its dense and pendulous vines.

The mulberry harvest is an annual ritual at my home in Baltimore County. Every June 1, and for two or three weeks thereafter, I can count on free mulberries for my Cheerios, as long as I pick them before the birds do.

The ritual always ends with my vow to try some recipes for mulberries -- next year. My wife, Susan, always rolls her eyes when I say this, because she knows that I cook only a little more often than snow falls in a Maryland summer.

This year, though, is different. I'm learning what mulberries are good for besides purpled fingers and breakfast cereal. Mulberry Muffins. Country Cobbler. Even Chicken With Chipotle-Mulberry Sauce.

Mulberries -- at least the ones in my yard -- taste sweet but a little bland, but they can be paired with more flavorful fruit in just about any dish you'd care to make. Use them in breads and cakes. Try a cold fruit salad of mulberries, blueberries and sliced peaches. You can even make Mulberry Ice Cream, though I haven't, yet.

I've never seen mulberries for sale in grocery stores or at farmers' markets. And when I mention mulberries, I get plenty of blank looks. For many people, the word "mulberry" is likelier to call to mind a street name or a Dr. Seuss book title than a fruit that can be consumed and enjoyed.

But mulberries, in the words of New Mexico chef and food writer Dave DeWitt, "have been eaten by mankind since before recorded history and are also consumed by birds, raccoons, skunks and squirrels."

In "Mulberry Madness," a brief article on his fiery-foods.com Web site, DeWitt says the fruit was "a delicacy at feasts in ancient Rome, and the Romans dedicated the tree to Minerva, goddess of wisdom."

But my mulberry is not the black mulberry of ancient Rome, the one that Ovid said had its berries stained deep red forever by the blood of the doomed lovers Pyramus and Thisbe. This mulberry, with dark, juicy fruit, was spread through much of Europe, apparently by the Romans, and graced the English landscape long before the first Queen Elizabeth. The black mulberry (Morus nigra) is relatively rare in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Nor is it the red mulberry (Morus rubra), native to Maryland and much of the eastern United States and a popular fruit tree in Colonial America. The red mulberry was among the fruit that greeted Maryland's first English settlers in 1634. " We cannot sett a foot, but tread on Strawberries, raspire, fallen mulberrie vines, acchorns, walnutts, saxafras," wrote the Rev. Andrew White, a Jesuit who accompanied the group. "The place abounds with [profit], but also with pleasure."

My mulberry turns out to be Morus alba 'Pendula,' a glammed-up descendant of the white mulberry whose leaves fed silkworm larvae in China and Japan for centuries.

Colonists hoping to launch a silk industry in America brought the white mulberry to our shores. The silk effort faltered, but the fast-growing and almost indestructible white mulberry was here to stay. It can be found today in almost every state. As many gardeners know, the wild white mulberry is highly invasive and can flourish in dry weather and poor soil. I've pulled up tiny white mulberry weeds by the hundreds.

The white mulberry also was naturalized and hybridized with the native red mulberry, according to a history prepared by the California Rare Fruit Growers. There are several cultivars, such as ours, that are attractive ornamentals. Indeed, says English garden writer Allen Paterson, in Best Trees for Your Garden, "They have become something of a cliche in suburban front yards that have been 'landscaped.' "

Still, the weeping mulberry, with its distinctive gnarled limbs, long vines and leaves of several shapes, was a mystery when we bought our property at the end of 1998. We had to ask a tree expert what it was, and were surprised to learn that it yielded abundant fruit every spring.

That first year, I began harvesting the berries, often with birds scolding my work. I have been diligent ever since, scrutinizing the cycle of ripening from white to pink to red to almost black. I never eat as I pick. Despite my careful touch, one of every five berries falls to the ground, making a dark purple mat beneath the tree. (Some people recommend spreading a sheet on the ground to catch these fall-aways, but I haven't.)

This year, as I began experimenting with recipes for the fruit, I made muffins first.

The recipe, from allrecipes.com, was very simple, and other than substituting fat-free yogurt for the fat-

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