Purple stains everywhere. Yes, it’s mulberry season!

Telltale purple stains on the washing and paths say it’s mulberry season and the birds and bats are feasting already.

I’m keeping a close watch on my tree this year, because last year the wildlife here swooped on the ripening fruit before I got around to picking it and I barely tasted any.

Mulberries have remained high in public affection for centuries. Remember the nursery rhymes Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush and Pop Goes the Weasel? Van Gogh featured the mulberry tree in some of his paintings, too, including one titled “Mulberry Tree’’.

No monkeys or weasels here, but I love mulberries for their tart and sweet juiciness and generous and reliable re appearance on the tree each year. They don’t need watering – or any care, really. Just give them a big haircut after fruiting and defoliation to keep the tree size manageable and the next crop of reachable and they’ll return each Spring.

Birds go for them because they’re bright red and stand out against the green foliage before they darken to ripe. They seem to cause havoc with their digestion, though, because the droppings are vivid and liquid in mulberry season.

Delicious they are, but messy to handle. I have vivid memories of climbing neighbourhood mulberry trees and gobbling the fruit in situ, staining my clothes, teeth, lips and anything else I touched. After we’d gorged on the berries, we’d pick the tree leaves for our silkworm boxes.

(Does anyone know what the appeal is of silkworms to kids, please? I can only remember my shoe box had grubs doing lots of specky black poo and weaving sticky yellow cocoons. Did I really think I’d get a bolt of silk from them?)

But back to the fruit….

Mulberries make great jam – a glorious deep burgundy shade and they’re colourful for clafoutis**, slices and puddings (apple and mulberry crumble YUM!).

Mulberries are large, deciduous trees native to warm, temperate, and subtropical regions of Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Technically, the mulberry fruit is an aggregation of small fruits that grow concentrically around the central axis like blackberries or loganberries. Each fruit is fro  2-5 cm long. In most species, mulberries are purple-red when ripe, but they can also be white, red, purple or multiple variegated colors in the same fruit.

Gobble away because they’re rich in health benefits and phyto-nutrients and have just 43 calories per 100g. Like other berries, mulberries have potential health effects against cancer, aging and neurological diseases, inflammation, diabetes, and bacterial infections. They also have an antioxidant called resveratrol which protects against stroke, contain vitamins A, C and E and potassium, manganese and magnesium which help  control heart rate and blood pressure.

Black mulberry was imported to Britain in the 17th century to help cultivate silkworms. It was much used in folk medicine, especially treating ringworm. Mulberries are also widespread in Greece.

Mulberry fruit color derives from anthocyanins which yield natural food colorants, for which there is a growing demand in the food industry. It’s been found those in mulberry fruit could be used as a fabric tanning agent.  It was also found that all the sugars, acids, and vitamins of the fruit remained intact in the residual juice after removing the anthocyanins, so it could be used to produce products like juice, wine, and sauce.

Mulberry trees are attractive, low maintenance and fast growing and reach between eight and 15m. Some North American cities have banned them because they produce lots of pollen, posing a  health hazard for allergy sufferers, as the lightweight pollen is easily inhaled deeply into the lungs, sometimes triggering asthma. It’s actually only the males that produce pollen. Conversely, female mulberry trees produce all-female flowers, which draw pollen and dust from the air.

Fortunately, a sex change fixes that. Mulberry tree scion wood can easily be grafted on to other mulberry trees during winter, when the tree is dormant. So a male can be converted to an allergy-free female tree, by grafting all-female mulberry tree scions to it.

 The other convenient and clever thing about mulberry trees is that they’re self-fertile, so only one tree is needed to produce fruit. They are very hardy, and will grow well in just about any climatic condition.  Plant in full sun and give them space to spread out.  They are fairly wind tolerant and a great tree for beginner gardeners. They’re extremely adaptable and will thrive in a wide-variety of soils, although a deep, well-drained loam soil is best.  As mulberries grow and fruit vigorously, additional fertiliser is not necessary.

Mulberries can be grown from seed but more commonly propagated from hardwood cuttings.  Grafted mulberries will not grow as tall as mulberries grown from seed, and are recommended for suburban blocks.

I got this tip from a gardening friend to encourage the tree to grow horizontal rather than vertical, and the fruit thus more accessible; tie several weights like broken terracotta or filled water bottles to the outer ends of branches to pull them down closer to the ground.

Worked a treat and gave the tree a pleasing fuller shape.

** Mulberry Clafouti
1/2 cup pl flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp (good pinch) salt
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp lemon juice
1/4 cup butter melted (+ 1/2 tbsp for the pan)
enough milk…
2 cups mulberries

Preheat the oven to 350F. Butter a 9×9 ceramic or glass baking pan. Put the mulberries and lemon juice in the pan. Shake to coat the berries with the juice and set aside.

Sift the flour before measuring. Whisk all dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Add the eggs, beat well. Add the vanilla extract and melted butter. Beat well. Add just enough milk to make a slightly thin batter. Mix well, pour over mulberries, and bake at 350F for 35-40 minutes.