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We Come Not to Bury Mulberry, But to Praise it!

Q. I caught your show for the first time recently while driving. It was very

—informative and responsible. But part of your discussion with a woman with a mulberry tree 'problem' left me disappointed. Yes, wildlife and birds enjoy mulberries, but so do humans! The berries are large and easily picked—you don't have to get down on the ground or deal with thorns—and the branches bend easily without breaking, bringing more of the treasures within reach.

I enjoy all three types I've encountered in New Jersey:

  • - Purple: large fruits; taste a little like watermelon; not very common.
  • - White: fruits are a little smaller; very sweet; and very common.
  • - Black: the best of all, more flavor and less sweetness than the white ones.

Yes, ripe mulberries can mess up a sidewalk for the first few weeks of June. But if picked and eaten instead, those two or three weeks can turn from inconvenience to joy! I think it would be great if you did a segment on these and other foods that people consider weeds or nuisances—like dandelion, lamb's quarter, and other common, easy-to-identify, safe wild edibles. It's great to harvest from a garden you didn't plant! Thanks,

    ---Marc in Fanwood (north central), NJ
A. I am pleased to report that extolling the merits of unappreciated plants is a regular topic on our show, Marc. There's an article called "Eat Your Weedies" in our A to Z archives that examines several edible wild plants that people routinely complain about (chickweed, white clover, purslane and wild violets); and I love the so-called invasive wineberry so much that it got its very own article. And now you've put mulberry on the table.

One of my favorite books, Peter Del Tredici's "Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast" (Cornell University Press; 2010), explains that the prevalence of the (originally Asian) white mulberry in America is due to a silkworm breeding craze that exploded in the 1820s. The trees were grown like mad, the silkworm business never materialized, and then birds helped spread the plant even further. Del Tredici notes that these naturalized trees (the second most common 'weed' in New York City!) are excellent at erosion control, reduce the heat of paved areas in cities, survive salty and compacted soils and provide excellent food and habitat for wildlife. But he adds that he finds the flavor of the fruits "insipid". Turns out that maybe he just didn't try enough trees.

In his latest book, "Grow Fruit Naturally", frequent YBYG guest and noted fruit expert Dr. Lee Reich describes three different varieties of mulberry that are named according to the hues of their fruit, but warns that these designations bear little relation to the actual colors of the fruits any individual plant will produce. So—at least in the North—your {quote} "black" and "purple" berries are probably just variations produced by the endless crossings and natural hybridizing of red and white mulberry trees. The true black mulberry, explains Lee, is native to Western Asia, and hardy only in Zones 7 and warmer (and even then only in drier areas of those climes). Lee calls it "the best tasting of all mulberries—and perhaps the best tasting of all fruits…the berries have an intense flavor, as if coming from a fruit five times their size, and a sweetness that is offset with a perfect balance of zing."

The red mulberry is actually American-born, but Lee explains that this native has been naturally hybridizing with the white Asian variety that was intensively cultivated in the 1800s for so long that there are an enormous number of natural variations out there.

As a result, the so-called 'white mulberry' can produce fruits that are white, lavender or black—which explains how your {quote} "black" berries could appear in the North; they're probably genetic variants produced by the crossing of a white and red mulberry. (Lee adds that true black mulberries ripen much later in the season than the common red and white types; in mid to late summer as opposed to Spring.)

Along with color, the flavor of the fruits can vary greatly from tree to tree in the wild. Lee has tasted some that he declared to be MUCH too sweet, but adds that some of the red/white hybrids can have a flavor so

it approaches that of the black type he so praises. All mulberries are edible, so once you've learned to properly identify the trees (the berries have the look and shape of blackberries), you can search for the wild ones with the best taste.

And, unlike many so-called alien invasives, there are named cultivars available that Lee highly recommends, including "Illinois Everbearing" a {quote} "probable" red and white hybrid whose flavor, says Lee, almost matches that of his treasured black berries. And for those who live in warm, dry areas with mild winters, named varieties of the true black mulberry are also available from specialty suppliers.

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