6th August 2020
By Peter Coles
(c) PETER COLES
When I posted a 2020 Spring round-up at the end of April, London's mulberry trees were just coming into flower, with their distinct male and female catkins (usually on the same tree). Now, just over three months later, the female flowers have developed into what we know as "mulberries" and are turning from very pale green, to pink and then dark purple-black as they ripen. At this time of year you can often see all of these phases at the same time, on a single tree.
According to the tragic story by 1st century BC Roman poet, Ovid, the black mulberry owes its progression from white to veinous red colour to a curse. In the story, two lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe, whose parents will not allow them to marry, decide to elope, arranging to meet under a mulberry tree in the dead of night. Thisbe, arriving first, is frightened away by a lioness, its mouth dripping with blood from a recent meal. When Pyramus arrives soon after, he finds not Thisbe, but the veil that she dropped as she fled, now stained with blood after the lion had mauled it. Broken-hearted, thinking his lover has been killed by the wild animal, he unsheaths his sword and takes his life. When Thisbe overcomes her fear and returns to the rendezvous, she finds Pyramus dying under the mulberry. Consumed with grief, she, too, takes his sword and plunges it into her chest - but not before she puts a curse on the tree:
"... you, the tree that now covers the miserable corpse of one man
with your branches, are soon to cover [the bodies] of two.
Bear forever signs of our death and always have fruits of a dark and mournful hue,
reminders of the blood we have shed.”
Black mulberry fruit changes colour from white, to pink to dark blood-red. as it ripens
Food for free
Mulberries are a rare delight in Britain. On the one hand, mulberry trees are not common - probably fewer than 1000 or so of Greater London's 8 million trees are black mulberries (Morus nigra), and just a few dozen are white mulberries (Morus alba).
At the same time, the fruit is only ripe for a few weeks in July and August. Added to this, unless black mulberries are frozen, they perish soon after they are picked and cannot usually be dried - although a friend has pointed me to a website that claims to sell dried "wild black mulberries" from Turpan in Xinjiang Autonomous Province (China). Judging from photos, though, these look like the dark fruit typical of many (paradoxically named) white mulberry varieties.
In any case, now is the time to go mulberry picking! In an ordinary year, I would be leading foraging walks now, but this is no ordinary year. However, armed with the Morus Londinium map and some old clothes, you can do it yourself!
The Roman lyric poet Horace, writing at about the same time as Ovid, advised picking mulberries in the morning:
I'll give him health, who when his meals are done,
Eats juicy mulberries, pluck'd before the sun
doth rise too high, and scorch with heat of noon.
As a botanical aside, the mulberry is not, strictly speaking, a berry at all, but an aggregate fruit. Each little 'bobble' is a mini-fruit or drupelet, with its own flesh-covered seed, having developed from a separate flower (one of the 'bobbles' of the female catkin). It therefore resembles the raspberry, but not the blackberry, which develops from a single flower. And female catkins don't need to be pollinated to develop into mulberries.
Berries or not, ripe black mulberries are delicious, with a juicy, tart, sweetness that I think is a bit like red wine. And they're packed with vitamins and anti-oxidants.
White mulberries are even rarer. In London, or indeed in Britain generally, mature trees can be counted in their tens rather than hundreds. On the plus side, they often bear fruit after just a few years, unlike black mulberries which can take 10-15 years to fruit for the first time, depending on how they are propagated.
Despite common belief, white mulberries seem to have been imported to England in the 17th century by James I, along with black mulberries, to provide leaves for silkworms (it's their sole food). When James I's silk project failed after a few years (because of the climate and a lack of expertise in rearing silkworms), any white mulberry trees were either grubbed out, or not replaced when they eventually died, so none has survived from this time.
By contrast, a few 17th century black mulberries (and/or their descendants) have survived and many others have been planted since, notably in the late 19th century. They make attractive, craggy, orchard and landscape trees, with abundant fruit, so anyone who has one, tends to want to keep it.
The fruit of the white mulberry can be white, but many - if not most - of the dozens of varieties actually produce dark-coloured 'berries' that resemble those of the black mulberry, though they are not as plump or as tasty. Unlike black mulberries (M. nigra), white mulberries can be dried and are quite easy to find in Turkish grocery shops and health food stores - sometimes covered in cocoa powder or chocolate...
White mulberry from Greenwich University campus.
Unripe dark fruit of a weeping white mulberry in Regent's Park.
In the summer of 2016, soon after the Morus Londinium project started, I was able to lead some foraging walks. On 3rd August 2016, one such walk started in West Square, with its three old black mulberries and four young white mulberries, and ended round the corner in the gardener's private yard in Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park. In association with the Orchard Project, we were granted priviledged access to forage from a spectacular old black mulberry tree. As it happens, the tree overhangs a wall, so passers-by can also get a taste of the fruit.
TIP: to remove the red stain of mulberry juice from your hands, wash them with the juice of a crushed unripe mulberry.
The arrival of ripe mulberries is celebrated each July by the Brothers of Charterhouse almshouse, who offer the first crop from their veteran mulberry trees to the encumbent Lord Mayor. In 2014, before I helped to set up Morus Londinium, I was fortunate to be invited to join them at the presentation event.
Charterhouse has a long tradition of giving its first mulberries of the year to the Lord Mayor
Shown here is Dame Fiona Woolf, with Head Gardener Claire Davies in 2014.
While on the subject of mulberry fruiting seasons, a couple of years ago I bought a Charlotte Russe (Morus matsanuga) hybrid mulberry, which was voted Plant of the Year at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2017. It's the first successful cross between a white and black mulberry, is a dwarf variety and fruits for months, from about June to October. Perfect for my small front garden. It does what it says (i.e. fruits continuously for months), but the 'berries' are disappointing - with a rather weak, black mulberry taste and very little juice. But they're OK to add to desserts and probably to cook with. The shrub (hard to call it a tree, even a sapling) isn't very special either. So, all in all, rather disappointing.
The Charlotte Russe mulberry produces fruit for months
Where to find mulberry trees
If you don't have a mulberry tree of your own and want to find one, just refer to our mulberry map, which you, our readers and followers, are still adding to every week. From a few dozen trees in Spring, 2016, we have now mapped over 700 mulberries, the vast majority of them black mulberries (Morus nigra), though white mulberries are now appearing as street trees.
Easy places to find the rarer, mature white mulberries in London are Regent's Park, Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park Corner and Greenwich University (search them up on the Morus Londinium map).
Not all mulberries on the map are publicly accessible, though, so please respect private property and, of course, don't damage or put a strain on a tree by climbing in it. Having said that, in the Eastern Mediterranean, Iran and Central Asia, where mulberries are endemic - or at least have grown in abundance for centuries - it is common for children to climb up a tree and shake down the fruit onto a sheet or tablecloth spread on the ground.
Mulberries are delicious on their own, straight from the tree, but can be eaten with cream or ice cream - and even made into ice cream and sorbets. The best cream tea I've ever had was after a talk I gave at Fydell House in Boston (Lincolnshire), with fresh black mulberries from their tree.
Cream tea at Fydell House in Bpston, Lincs.
In Turkey, mulberries are used to make a thick syrup, Pekmez, which is claimed to have medicinal properties and is widely used as a sweetner, like honey. At this time of year, many people originally from the Eastern Mediterranean, Iran, Central Asia and around the Caspian Sea, where mulberries grow everywhere, will make a bee-line for any mulberry tree they come across, so you may have some competition! But there's usually plenty for everyone. Happy foraging!
Still hungrry for mulberry information? You'll find more than you can digest at one sitting in my book, Mulberry, published by Reaktion Books (2019) and available to order from your local bookseller, or online at Amazon, Blackwells, Waterstones, .
This blog post has been made possible by a grant to Prof. Les Back, Head of the Centre for Urban and Community Research and Dr Peter Coles from the Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London.
The website is entirely maintained by Peter, as we search to secure funding.
Text and photos (c) Peter Coles 2020