Friday, June 1, 2012

Mulberries: Mess or Banquet?

It is that time when Kansas cars, driveways, and tops of heads wear purplish reminders of a passing bird’s mulberry feast.  Everyone saw it coming as pale fruits of this native tree first turned bright red then matured to black-purple.  Not so long ago, Jayhawk-state residents looked forward to this early spring fruit as one of summer’s first harvests.  Now days, most folks consider these berries a mess to clean up.

The red mulberry is native to this region.  Nomadic tribes enjoyed its shade as well as the nutrient-rich berries they harvested and ate immediately or dried to add important vitamins to their winter fare. In addition, this tree was a drugstore for native people. A concoction made of mulberry bark treated both dysentery and worms.  Brew made from roots relieved urinary problems, and sap cured ringworm.  Not only was this plant good for food and medicinal purposes, but also its wood made strong bows.  Some tribes spun young mulberry shoots into fiber they could use to weave clothing.

Pioneers enjoyed the shade of this Great Plains native and looked forward to the vitamin boost they got in late spring from this long-fruiting plant. Old-timers made social occasions of mulberry picking expeditions. They harvested berries by hand, or to be more efficient, they placed a cloth beneath a tree and shook ripened fruit onto it.

 In addition to eating the fresh-picked fruit, early settlers dried this vitamin storehouse for winter use.  Cooks often made jams to last families throughout the year.  Mulberry fruits by themselves made good pies, and they blended well in rhubarb, apple, or pear pastries.  Modern cooks use updated recipes to make mulberry jam, mulberry wine, mulberry pie, and mulberry cobbler.  The internet includes a number of salivary gland triggering recipes.

Humans are not the only creatures to enjoy mulberries.  Over 50 species of birds love them as well, including bright yard visitors such as cardinals and orioles. Over time, it is clear to see where mulberry-eating birds perched upon a fence post or on a cedar branch and deposited fertilized seeds that grow along a fence line or in a cedar row. Insect-loving birds visit the trees to snag mulberry-loving bugs.

Other mulberry fans include coyotes and domestic dogs.  Anyone taking long walks in the country during mulberry season will find coyote scat loaded with its seeds.  These wild canines must eat dark berries until their bellies bulge.  We once had a black lab that would lie under a neighbor’s tree to catch fruits as they dropped.  I swear I saw him smile as he scarfed those berries down.

Anglers know that carp love mulberries.  The silvery giants swarm beneath branches dangling over the creek to gobble mulberries as fast as the wind blows them off the tree.  It is fun to watch Big Creek boil below an overhanging mulberry as huge carp surface to fight for a favorite meal.

No doubt about it, mulberries make a mess.  However, they are an opportunity as well. When those purple fruits first splotch the car and sidewalk, get a landowner’s permission to harvest a bucket of tasty fruit.  Choose a recipe to make some jam or a pie that tastes like spring.  You’ll see why creatures from carp to coyotes love this seasonal delight.

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