For many of us, the phrase “All around the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel…” is a familiar refrain from childhood. But did you know that many of those proverbial mulberry bushes are growing right here in Northeast Ohio?
I first encountered the fruit on a residential street in Cleveland’s Little Italy neighborhood. The dark, juicy berries had fallen to the sidewalk, staining the concrete and feeding birds which promptly deposited purple-stained excrement on nearby cars. That was more than a decade ago, back when I didn’t realize these could be people food.
Two years ago, I moved into a house in Geneva where a mulberry tree nestles between the driveway and sidewalk. In late June, the concrete is littered with berries and berry stains; they fall from the tree when they’re perfectly ripe.
As an avid forager, I felt like I might be missing something, so I Googled the fruit.
It turns out that mulberry trees were first documented in China, but now grow in temperate climates worldwide. In 1733, just after “founding” the colony of Georgia, General James Oglethorpe brought 500 mulberry trees to Fort Frederica, Georgia. Tree leaves are the favorite food of silkworms, and Oglethorpe hoped to start silk production to the emerging country. His experiment failed, but the trees spread. Among the more famous growers was Thomas Jefferson at Monticello.
And while they look like skinny blackberries, mulberries aren’t berries at all. In fact, they’re a cluster of tiny fruit that grows on thorn-free trees. As they fall to the ground ripe or are picked, they hold tight to quarter-inch, lime green stems.
In recent decades, mulberry trees have fallen into obscurity. In some places, because they produce so much pollen in springtime, they’ve been pushed into obscurity.
Luckily, that’s not the case here in Northeast Ohio. After confirming that I wouldn’t poison myself – and might even benefit from their impressive nutritional value and health benefits — I nibbled at a berry.
Slightly sweet with a light berry flavor, mulberries lack the acidic backbone that balances their heartier doppelganger, the blackberry. I found them satisfying and wanted enough for a baking project.
But first, I had to find a way to surmount the branches on our tree, which start far higher than my five-foot self. (In fact, they start at least one-third way up the 30-foot-tall tree.) To pick enough, I needed more than a ladder, so I spread an old, clean sheet on the ground and pushed the trunk a little. Berries rained onto the cotton and I had enough for a pie. The results, best served warm with vanilla ice cream, were delicious. (Check out this mulberry crisp recipe from our sister publication, Edible South Florida!)
—Words by Paris Wolfe; photos by Karin McKenna