Monday, April 25, 2016

Sweet! It's mulberry season!

It's mulberry season and our trees are loaded with fruit.

Granddaughter Trillian takes a break from picking black mulberries to taste

The humble mulberry was one of the first fruit trees we planted on our Groveland property after moving here in 1992. While my husband Ralph and I have appreciated these fruitful bearers for all of our adult life, there are many who don’t share our enthusiasm.

The main complaint about these mid-sized, broad-growing deciduous trees is that mulberries are messy. That’s true. While these fruit-bearing trees have many attributes, neatness is not among them.

The most common varieties produce prolific quantities of sweet, sticky, dark-purple berries that fall to the ground when ripe. Ripe mulberries squash easily, which enables the pinkie-sized fruit to spread a purple splat onto fingers, faces, bare feet and the bottom of shoes. They stain cars and rooftops with impunity and leave their mark on driveways and clothing. 

Messy?  You betcha!

Because of the mess they make, mature trees are often cut down. Long ago when we lived on Cape Cod, Ralph and I sought out mulberry trees in our town and asked for permission to pick them. No one ever refused.  Unfortunately, as the years went by, fewer and fewer trees remained. They didn’t die off – mulberry trees are hardy and rarely suffer from diseases. Instead, homeowners had them removed. People who were tired of purple-staining berries all over the ground, hired tree surgeons to cut them down.

It made us sad but it probably made wildlife sadder.

As messy as mulberries are, they more than make up for that negative trait by being a wildlife magnet, especially to birds. 

Plant a mulberry tree in your yard and wildlife will come. Cedar waxwings will arrive by the hundreds to fill their rotund bellies with sweetness. 

Red-bellied woodpecker with white mulberry in its beak

Red-bellied woodpeckers, crows, cardinals and even sandhill cranes are among the many birds that take advantage of mulberry season.

Crow trying to decide which berry to eat

Sandhill crane plucking a mulberry from the ground

Squirrels like them too and last night Ralph and I even saw a sounder of feral hogs gobble up the fallen fruit that covered the ground beneath the trees.

A gray squirrel likes to hang upside down while munching on mulberries

A sounder of feral hogs feed on dropped mulberries at dusk

One solution to the purple mess mulberries make is to plant a variety that produces white berries instead of dark colored ones. On our property, we grow many different kinds of mulberry trees but I like the white mulberries best. 

Cedar waxwing with white mulberry

When ripe, white mulberries turn slightly beige and taste even sweeter than the purple-berried varieties. While the white-fruiting trees are the ones I go to when I head out to pick, two of my children prefer the purple fruit. I suppose it’s all a matter of individual taste. 

Among life's tough choices...
Black or white mulberries?  Which will Trillian choose?

My grandkids are less particular. To them, all mulberry trees are special. They like them because they can pick them easily. The trees do not have thorns or briars. What they do have are wonderful low spreading limbs that make them one of the best climbing trees around for children. 

Even when there's no fruit yet, mulberry trees are fun to climb
as grandchildren Maya and Ella discover

While adults may dislike all the berries on the ground, it would be hard not to appreciate the pleasant shade a mulberry tree provides on a hot summer day. In Florida, berry season only lasts for a few weeks in April.  After that, the tree’s broad-branching leafy cover offers respite from the heat while adding a lush and verdant feel to the landscape.

Even in winter when they've lost all their leaves, the dense branching of mulberry trees provide shade and beauty

I wish more people added mulberry trees to their yards. Even if people don’t eat the fruit – something I find hard to imagine not doing – a mulberry tree gives back far more than so many other trees do. It’s provides shade and attracts wildlife. Birds nest in its branches and feed on the berries. Kids like to climb its strong, broad limbs and it has the right kind of branches to support swings and hammocks. Cold weather doesn’t bother a mulberry tree. It grows quickly and doesn’t get diseases.

There’s no denying that mulberry trees are messy but what’s a little mess compared to so many other admirable attributes?

If you’re looking to add a tree to your landscape, consider a mulberry but be sure to plan carefully. To avoid future problems, consider a white berry variety or, if you decide to go with a traditional dark-fruited tree, don’t plant it too close to the driveway, walkway or house.  Give your mulberry tree space to grow broad and bear fruit prolifically and you’ll be happy. So will your kids, grandkids, birds and other wildlife. When chosen and placed correctly, a mulberry tree can be a sweet and fruitful addition to any landscape that will last for generations.

Belated addition 

Since first writing this piece I discovered one more animal taking advantage of mulberry season - a female coyote who spent considerable time eating mulberries that had fallen to the ground beneath the black mulberry trees closest to the woods.  What a treat it was to watch this beautiful animal - nursing female - gobble up the berries.

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