Sunday, May 28, 2017

Mulberry Bonanza

It's that time of year, folks: Mulberry season!
For those of you not in the know, mulberries are where it's at. They are misunderstood and neglected, but you can totally use that to your advantage. Mulberries are considered a weed in a lot of the country and many homeowners despise them for the stains left on sidewalks, driveways, cars and bare feet, not to mention the blue-colored bird droppings that can stain everything else.

But the mulberry is so much more than that. Mulberries are a delightful delicate berry that would certainly sell like crazy at the farmers market if only it could handle the ride. Their hardiness is also a great boon for homesteaders and gardeners who want a dependable crop. They have a delicate flavor that can border on blandness depending on the variety (more on that later).

When I was young, my grandma would have me over to harvest mulberries. We would spend the entire day harvesting her many trees. I'm pretty sure I ate more than ended up in the buckets, but she was awesome and let me eat my fill. My hands would be stained purple for days and I loved it. I felt like I was in a different world. It was the essence of youth and summer and living forever. When Grandpa came home from work, we would gather in the living room and fill big bowls with mulberries, cover with milk and eat. It is still one of my favorite snacks. And just a hint, use milk, not cream as the heaviness of the cream seems to overwhelm the delicate flavor of the berries.

They are very nutritious and low in calories. They have a fair amount of potassium and iron (1 cup provides 14% of the recommended daily value). They also have a lot of vitamin C, some calcium and plenty of other nutrients.

Unripe berries that will turn purple.
If you want to harvest mulberries, first you need to find some trees/shrubs. If you are not so fortunate as to have them on your property (my house came with 7!), you can easily find them. Look for red/purple stains on sidewalks. If it is public property, harvest as you please. If it is on someone's property, technically you can harvest anything overhanging the sidewalk, but it is better to ask. I can almost guarantee that you'll never have someone say no; they'll just be happy to have less of a mess (hint: frame this as you being a kind-hearted person selflessly helping them avoid said mess). Check parks as well. In my neighborhood, I have dozens of trees, so I am never in want.

Now, a mulberry is not a mulberry is not a mulberry. In fact, there are a few kinds of mulberries and they are all slightly different. Red mulberries are native to North America. White mulberries were imported from Asia with the intent of creating a silk trade here. That didn't work out and now these are considered an invasive species (so really, by eating them so they don't grow new trees, you are doing a public service). This does not necessarily refer to the color of the berries when ripe, and they can also hybridize. Many mulberries start green, then ripen through white, pink, red and finally to a rich purple/black color. However, many varieties will be ripe at red, pink, lavender, or even white! The varieties that are red or purple when ripe tend to taste the best and have the most pronounced flavor. White and lavender varieties tend to be on the bland side. They are super sweet but lack the tartness that balances it out. I harvest whatever I can get. I prefer the red and purple ones for eating fresh, but the white ones are fine when mixed with others in baked goods and sauces. And honestly, I'll take whatever I can get. In my neighborhood, I've found that the tree that gives lavender berries has the largest berries, so I get more bulk by harvesting that tree.

The leaves are serrated and can be either heart shaped or lobed. Generally, the younger trees tend to have lobes. See photos.

So how do you tell if a mulberry is ripe? Basically, it's ripe if it is laying on the ground. Many people mistakenly think you pick mulberries, but this is guaranteed to leave you with fewer berries and most of them unripe. When mulberries are fully ripe, they drop off the tree at the slightest touch. If you go to pick one, 50 fully ripe berries will drop to the ground. If you have to pull at all, they aren't ripe yet.

When you have found your tree, watch it carefully. Once you see a few berries laying on the ground, grab a tarp or old sheet. Lay the tarp under the tree and shake the branches. You can use a hoe or stick to get higher branches if needed. All of the ripe berries will drop onto your sheet and you just pick it up at the corners and carry in your harvest. It's that simple. Not only will this give you the best berries, but you'll be able to harvest huge amounts in no time.

The berries don't all ripen at once, so you will need to go back a few times to get more. This is ideal though because you can get just what you need over a longer period of time.

Ripe purple mulberries
When you plan to use them, you'll want to clean them well to get rid of dirt and the tiny bugs they often have. Just submerge in water and remove the bugs that float. A couple washes should be sufficient.

They won't keep long, just a few days in the refrigerator. If you need to keep them longer, either cook them and store the cooked berries in the refrigerator or toss into the freezer. They are delicate, so avoid manhandling them. Don't store in deep containers as the berries on the bottom will be crushed.

A lot of people recommend clipping off the tiny green stems before using. Honestly, I don't have time for that. I use the berry whole and have never felt that the final quality suffered for it. If you decide that you need to, use scissors or nail clippers to easily (although not quickly) remove them. And if you are going to use them for juice, jelly or syrup, leave them on and strain them out.

If you are not one to wear the purple hands as a badge of honor, there are two methods to remove the stains. Rub lemons/lemon juice on your hands or rub unripe fruit on your hands then wash them with soap.

Use them as you would other blackberries or raspberries. Use in muffins, cobblers, crisps or scones.

Toss a few into your morning smoothie. The flavor won't stand out much, but it is a good, nutritive filler and adds some nice color (if you use a darker berry).

Add to oatmeal or toss in with cold cereal such as bran flakes.

These make an excellent pie. In fact, it is my favorite berry pie. They would be lovely in little tarts or a cooked puree added to thumbprint cookies.

Add whole to cheesecake or swirl in a cooked puree.

Add to pancake batter. Double points if you serve with a syrup made of the berries (Cook them down in a little water and a healthy amount of sugar, then run through a strainer).

Make a berry sauce or ice cream topping.

Put them in parfaits, popsicles, slushies.

You can juice them, I suppose, although I've never tried. You could also make wine.

Use in tea.

Make ice cream or sorbet.

Mulberries are a fantastic fruit for the frugal foodie or aspiring homesteader. Free, low maintenance, great nutrition and a lovely flavor make this one of my favorite plants for growing my own food.

Give it a try! You'll love it!


  1. I have discovered mulberries as well - we have several in our property and I had to google what they were before I decided to eat one. They are wonderful - and I discovered that the birds will alert me to when they are getting ripe - LOL, then it becomes a free for all as to who gets more, me or them!! Thanks for the post!

    1. You're welcome!

      I love mulberries too. There is never enough between me and the birds! :)


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