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Mulberry Madness! PDF Print E-mail
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Mulberry Madness!
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By Dave DeWitt

Recipes:

Sweet-Hot Mulberry Jam

Chicken with Chipotle-Mulberry
Barbecue Sauce

Grilled Lamb Chops with Mulberry Salsa

Country Cobbler

Mulberry Ice Cream

During the late spring and early summer there are certain specific destinations I go to on my long walks in the South Valley of Albuquerque: fruiting mulberry trees. I carry along a plastic bag and spend some quality time harvesting the ripe berries and staining my hands reddish-purple. But the stains are worth it–they wash off easily and the berries are used in surprisingly varied recipes, including both spicy ones and cool-down desserts.

The Trees

There are four main species of mulberries in the United States: red, black, white, and Texas. But there are so many hybrids among these species, plus cultivars, so except for the distinctive white mulberries with their pale berries, it is difficult to know precisely what species you are picking without consulting a botanist. In the eastern half of the country, the most common are the red mulberry (native) and the black mulberry, an import from southern Europe. The white mulberry is an import from China, where it has been cultivated for millennia as a food for silkworms, and there’s one a half-block from our house. The shorter, native Texas mulberry is mostly found in Texas, Arizona, and here in New Mexico.

Mulberry Tree

A young but fruitful mulberry tree

Depending on the species, mulberry trees can grow up to 80 feet tall but average less than that, usually between 30 and 50 feet. Because of their spreading nature, they are excellent shade trees. Except for the white mulberry, the berries mature to a dark purple color, nearly black.

Mulberries ripening

Mulberries ripening

Mulberries are dioecious, meaning that the flowering parts are on different trees–-males and females–-and the fruits and seeds are produced on the female plants. Chiles and tomatoes, for example, are monoecious, with all flowering parts on the same plant.

Because the female mulberry trees produce huge amounts of fruit that stain everything they touch, most people plant the male trees, the so-called fruitless mulberries that are grown from cuttings, or clones. I would estimate that 95 percent of the mulberry trees in the South Valley are males, which prevents the staining mess. The downside is the vast amount of pollen released by the males in the spring. There is a male mulberry outside of my office window and in the spring I can watch the yellow clouds of pollen being released, and that triggers fits of sneezing.

The Berries








A gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis),
its beak smeared with mulberry juice,
enjoys lunch.

Botanically, the fruits of the mulberry are not berries, but rather a collective fruit. We’ll call them berries anyway because the look like berries. The dark, one-inch long berries have been eaten by mankind since before recorded history and are also consumed by birds, racoons, skunks, and squirrels. They were a delicacy at feasts in ancient Rome, and the Romans dedicated the tree to Minerva, goddess of wisdom. Ovid, in Metamorphoses, tells the story of the star-crossed lovers Pyramus and Thisbe, who killed themselves beneath a fruiting white mulberry. When the dying Thisbe prayed to the gods that the tree would "always have fruit of a dark and mournful hue, to make men remember the blood we two have shed," the gods granted her wish and changed the white mulberry into the black mulberry, which stains the hands a reddish color.

Harvested black mulberries

Harvested Black mulberries

There are two principal methods of picking the berries: one by one by hand, or you can spread a large cloth like an old, clean sheet beneath the branches and vigorously shake them. I don’t advise climbing into the tree to pick them, although I did that as a kid. Rather, use a sturdy ladder to pick from the higher branches. Pick only the darkest and ripest berries as the lighter colored ones are very sour and not nearly as flavorful. Because birds will have been feeding on the berries, avoid picking those that have any white coloring on them. Be sure to soak them in water for an hour or so, and then rinse them clean.

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