The Mulberry Harvest

July 10, 2008

UPDATE: While she undoubtedly likes mulberries and tears up the blackberry bushes, our “bear” has cloven hoofs, to judge by the tracks across the garden this morning. Apparently one of the neighbour’s young Holsteins has a wanderlust, but manages to get back into the pasture by herself after each adventure.

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When we moved to Young’s Hill in 1968 I discovered an unusual little tree. In July it bore blackberries. Neither Mom nor Dad had any idea if they were edible, so I phoned my grandmother Florence, the family authority on mushrooms, and described the fruit. “They’re mulberries,” she said in her definite way. “They are fine to eat, but don’t keep well.”

They were indeed o.k. to eat, though not nearly as sweet and tasty as wild blackberries, my personal favourite. Still, the tree was loaded with the things, and Mom offered to make a mulberry pie if I would provide the fruit.

I pressed two white bed-sheets into service as nets to catch the berries when I shook the tree. This proved quite effective, though the sheets never saw another mattress after the ordeal. Personally I rather liked the tie-dyed effect the stains left: it was the sixties, after all.

The pie was quite a disappointment. The flavour was blandly acceptable, but soft, light-coloured seeds floated up in the filling and looked weird. I think we threw the rest of the first harvest out, and that was it for mulberries for the next decade or so.

By the late seventies I had discovered the delightful summer pastime of picking hand-to-mouth. I loved working my way through the patches of wild blackberries which grow on the property, but an occasional interval in the shade of the mulberry tree crept into my itinerary. My opinion of the fruit improved to where I added the following line to my repertoire: “The mulberry is nature’s way of telling you to relax and enjoy the fine summer day.”

Then a funny thing happened during the run-up to the plowing match: most of the mulberry saplings around the barns and fencerows mysteriously disappeared. Finally the various tree-smart volunteers admitted the pilfering and came out and asked if they could uproot some of the larger ones for planting elsewhere. We had lots of the things, so I saw no reason not to encourage others to enjoy the paradoxical fruit.

This year on the Net I discovered many recipes for the fruit, and more than a little interest in winemaking. Given the bumper crop of reds this year, I decided to call my vineyard-owning friend, Neil, to see if he had any interest in a harvest.

Neil arrived in the afternoon a day later. The morning’s fresh breeze had covered the ground with ripe fruit, but there were still quite a few berries on the trees. I had spent an hour with a trimmer clearing hay and undergrowth beneath the trees and unrolled a 40 by 60 foot tarp I found stored in the barn. We towed it into position with the golf cart and then discovered it very much wanted to become a kite. I parked the EZ-Go on the upwind end, and we wiggled the rest of the tarp under the southern half of the tree as far as the rail fence. This was harder to do than it sounds. Neil started to shake lower branches. I went for sticks which would reach the top.

There was plenty of ripe fruit on the tree, but the remaining berries had survived a stiff breeze that morning. The fruit fell somewhat willingly, and not in the volume I would have expected. Unripe berries, small branches, leaves and bark also found their way to the tarp, but Neil scooped most of it up into five-gallon pails until we both got sick of the process after the second tree. Away he went with his mulberries to see if he can make a wine as delectable as what his father produced years ago in England.

We stayed away from the third tree with the sweetest fruit because 1) it’s growing in a patch of poison ivy, and 2) the raccoons had had quite a party there the night before, and the area under the tree was a mess 3) something had killed one of the raccoons near there, and had made some very large holes in the underbrush surrounding the tree.

Having had quite enough of mulberries for a few days, I gratefully went back to blackberry-foraging, only to find more large holes in the undergrowth around the best of the bushes. Whatever it is likes to pick blackberries from inside the thicket. Ulp. I guess a raccoon on stilts or a stray hog would be out of the question…

Maybe I’ll get a siren for the golf cart to let it know I’m coming.

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