Ode to the mulberry tree


MANY PEOPLE , TRAGICALLY, have never known the unique, delicious, slightly musty, acid flavor of mulberries ("searchingly sour and hauntingly sweet" according to one description), a marvelous invention of the divine Mind. You can't buy mulberries at fruit shops as they are quite unsuitable for storage, though the Indians have long dried them. God, it would seem, intended us to have personal experience with picking our own. Few adventures beat foraging through the heavy, dusty-smelling leaves in search of mulberry quarry. The experience is a true rest cure, therapy par excellence.

Sometimes while clambering around the canopy of a mulberry tree like a monkey with its tail and one arm lopped off in search of its hidden treasures, I imagine that I'm the lord of the mulberry tree. Such presumptuousness rarely lasts long, though, as you invariably skewer yourself in short measure on the stubs of snapped-off branchlets. The pain, more of an inconvenience than real pain, quickly reminds you of your earthiness and the tree's superiority.

This ode is dedicated to the true lord of the mulberry tree — the Lord. This magnificent living edifice, this fount of delight, is all His doing.

Ode to the mulberry tree

Dad planted a mulberry tree in the back yard of our new home, built shortly after WW2, in Melbourne's eastern suburbs. I would have been only two or three, and don't remember the event. But I sure remember the annual summer ritual beginning five or six years later when, its roots having invaded some municipal drains (which Dad was still feeling guilty about forty years later), it started bearing its delicious, dark, blood-red nuggets. In February, every child in the neighborhood suddenly remembered that it was time to visit the McQueens. I don't remember if my parents got any scolding phone calls from mothers whose children returned home with stained shirts. But we quickly learnt one of God's special secrets about mulberry trees — to remove the stains from your skin, crush a few of the youngest mulberries, rub the juice over the infected area, and the offending patch would quickly be cleared up. We had to hire the services of the rich neighborhood kid to bring his air rifle over to drop marauding blackbirds. Whoever introduced blackbirds into Australia has a lot to answer for.

In the 19th century, people flocked to see a mulberry tree planted by the poet Milton in the garden of Christ's College, Cambridge  

Years later I bought my own home, and one of the first things I did was to plant a tree in the back yard, expecting it, like Dad's, to produce a heaping harvest in a few years. It's been in now for over twelve years, and, barring one summer when it yielded a small tin full for us and probably the same for the birds, it's done nothing. I'm sure it will come good eventually.

But all is not lost. Only one hundred meters down the road is an old historical home, the Westbury White House. In its yard stands a mulberry masterpiece, probably planted over one hundred years ago. Many years ago it split right down the middle, possibly from lightning strike, possibly from possum attack. Anyway, this king of mulberry trees ought to win a medal. Its branches are weighted down, in season, with an embarrassment of berries. They make a delicious syrup that vies with blackcurrant syrup for flavor and, I believe, nutrition. I imagine that one of the memories our children will share with mourners at my wife's funeral is her Sunday morning pancake and waffle fests in which mulberry and blueberry sauce figured large.

It's pickin' time

I know when the mulberries are ripening without even having to investigate closely. The road is spattered with bird droppings bearing the unmistakable mark of their provenance. Every three or four days in season, after the telltale signs begin to appear on the road, I scale the paling fence (with permission, of course) armed with all the necessary equipment for raiding God's larder — ladder, buckets, hat and old clothes. The hat never lasts where you originally put it for more than two minutes; it gets knocked off as soon as you try to push your way into the beckoning greenery to get at the gems hiding like scared children inside. You have to be a bit careful, as mulberry wood is very brittle. You invariably break off lots of dead twigs.

After scouring the lower branches it's time for the ladder. Up I go, stripping off what I find on the way up. But there, above reach even of the top of the step ladder, are the best berries. With a quick prayer, out one steps into the unknown. Well, actually, you aim for a branch that looks strong enough. Up, up you climb into the highest reaches capable of supporting a man's weight to where the air is so thin you begin to hyperventilate. Well, maybe not, but you know what I mean. Of course, the very best berries, big enough to sustain an army each, are still out of reach of all but winged creatures.

It's contemplatin' time

After a few minutes, some irresistible inner urge makes you search out a man-shaped cavity among branches and leaves where you can sit awhile. There you feast on a few samples. The really dark ones are so sweet you almost feel your teeth dissolving in their sockets, while the not-so-ripe ones make you pucker as does a lemon. (God's only mistake in designing mulberry trees is to make it so shady inside that you cannot always tell if your prey is really ripe or not, so you end up picking a number of unripe fruit.) God's sense of humor is well-known to inveterate mulberry-pickers. Invariably, the biggest and most luscious-looking fruit just won't let go of its stalk. Tug and tug as much as you like, all you end up doing is squishing it and getting terribly stained for your trouble. Was that a chuckle coming from somewhere?

Sitting, one meditates and enjoys some quiet fellowship with one's Creator. What a fantastic gift He has given us in the mulberry tree. He could have covered it with thorns, made it to have a symbiotic relationship with some incredibly painful stinging ant, given it bark so slippery you can't climb it, or any number of other possible impediments to successful collecting. But no, it's such an easy tree to climb.

Sit there long enough and your thoughts inevitably come to ponder your own insignificance — not only by comparison with its Maker but at the thought of the dozens, even hundreds, of folk who climbed the same tree and reveled in its beneficence in the decades before you were even born. What befell them all? Perhaps some went off to WW1 and never returned. Maybe others became successful politicians or leaders of industry. God, who monitors and remembers the thoughts and movements of every individual (Ps. 11:4-6), could easily recite the passing parade of characters who led the way and who had no knowledge of your future visits. Some day, others who will have no awareness of your existence and passing, will pick from the same tree. Did God intend trees to humble us as well as delight and provide for us?

Mulberry facts

Mulberries make up the genus Morus which is a member of the Moraceae family all of which have a milky sap containing latex. The family includes figs, jackfruit, breadfruit and even cannabis! About seven species of mulberries are found, the best known being the black mulberry (Morus nigra), renowned for its exquisite berry, and the white mulberry (Morus alba), the favorite of silk producers. Experts argue about where the edible black mulberry came from; the Caucasus and Nepal have both been mooted, but general consensus puts its origin in ancient Persia (Iran). From there it has spread worldwide. The Greeks are believed to have introduced it into continental Europe, while it reached Britain in the 1500s when King James I hoped to invigorate the economy through silk production. Records suggest that 100,000 were planted (Johns and Stevenson 1979, p. 197). The plan came to nothing, but since the mulberry can be very long-lived, some of the same trees can be found in old gardens today. I remember a majestic gnarled giant in Brickett Wood, in England. But I don't remember it ever fruiting.

In North America today you can find two species: the red mulberry, widespread in the eastern United States; and the Texas mulberry from the southwestern United States and northern Mexico.

Those with a botanical bent will be quick to tell you that the mulberry is not, technically speaking, a berry at all, but a "collective fruit". When told that, mulberry eaters will nod knowingly. Some less ripe mulberries tend to break up in the mouth — all globules and pips. They develop from small, quite inconspicuous catkin flowers.

The mulberry is botanically "related" to the strange Osage orange tree of Kansas, Virginia, Georgia and Texas. Its weird, bumpy, orange-like fruit is composed of many smaller fruits welded together. I remember seeing some of these bizarre fruit trees growing along the roadside not far from my childhood home; sadly, they have long since been felled for the sake of progress. I also remember tasting one — forget it!

Mulberry trees have a number of uses, in addition to producing berries and making silk. Some of the earliest Chinese paper was "made from the bark of the paper mulberry by soaking it, smoothing it and finishing it with rice paste" (Johnson 1973, p. 143). Don't try to build your home out of them, though, as their wood is soft and pithy.

Everything God has made is very good. Those who love Him should appreciate every manifestation of His infinite love for His creatures. I am quite sure mulberry-picking on a warm summer's day will forever remain etched in my children's' memories. When I am long gone, I expect the sight of a tree or the taste of a berry will arouse all kinds of nostalgic emotions in them.

Readers who enjoy indulging a passion for nostalgia will undoubtedly enjoy reading a charming Mark Twain piece that will be sure to pluck a nostalgic chord.

References and notes

Johns, Leslie, and Stevenson, Robert 1979, The Complete Book of Fruit, Angus and Robertson Publishers, London

Johnson, Hugh 1973, The International Book of Trees, Mitchell Beazley Limited, London

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