by Erik Baard
In New York City, messy sidewalks are usually cause for pinching one’s nose. But over the past few days I’ve been overjoyed to see purple splotches all over the place, from the sidewalks to fingertips. It’s mulberry season!
Our native red mulberry trees (the fruits of this and related species actually ripen to a deep, nearly black, purple — photo by “Wildman” Steve Brill) can be found all over the city. They spill onto the street all over St. George, Staten Island, and offer themselves up to ravenous joggers at the Central Park Reservoir. Sebago Canoe Club reports that it has a good population of them, and Socrates Sculpture Park has some dropping onto Vernon Boulevard in northern Long Island City as well. I know of at least a half-dozen more locations, so it’s a safe bet that you can find them too – and please write in with your findings!
My favorite spot, however, is Mulberry Coast. Where’s that? Well, okay, that’s just a name I’ve given to the west side of Randalls Island. A small strip of sand allows for kayak landings, and the red mulberry trees are immediately past the rough shoreline. Want to see them? Come kayaking this Saturday, on the “Mulberry Night” tour with the LIC Community Boathouse!
Of course, that’s if our hungry, often-vegan, buddies at Friends of Brook Park don’t eat them all first! That’s their photo above. They shot a teasing note to the LIC Community Boathouse accusing Queens paddlers of piracy. But I say that since Randalls is administered by Manhattan, we’re both borough raiders and therefore should work together! 🙂
White mulberries can also be found in some places, descendents of trees brought over in the 19th century in a failed attempt to start a North American silk worm industry. I foolishly ignored a white mulberry tree throughout my adolescence, wondering why its fruits never ripened and marveling that the birds wanted them anyway. Oops. I feel better that even Wildman Steve Brill confesses to making that error in his early foraging days.
Steve has a great mulberry entry on his site, with creative suggestions for using this fruit. I’m with the birds, however, in loving the fruit straight up. It was also interesting for me to learn from a little bit of research that the fruits might have a commercial future, after all. You don’t come across these early summer delights in grocery stores because they ferment and mold quite quickly, due to their high water content and thin skins. But they’re rich in anthocyanins, a blue pigmentation that is valuable as a dye and a disease-preventing antioxidant.
Harvesting such small fruits isn’t the chore you might imagine. I enjoyed Steve’s description of the standard practice:
“I love taking children mulberry-gathering. Everyone holds up a drop cloth, while I climb into the trees and shower the drop cloth and kids with fruit.”
Some might worry that eating from trees inside the city is unsafe. As always, you do so at your own risk. While trees do a remarkably good job of filtering toxins through many layers of osmosis before water and nutrients reach the fruit, pollution deposits can contaminated the surface. Rising or using a nontoxic wash will make the fruit safer but less flavorful. Another option is to seek trees at a decent distance from street traffic, the usual toxin source. This is another reason I love Randalls Island and hope our mulberry trees are doing well there!
I’ve been taken for many years with the visual counterpoint the small dark berries offer to these longest, brightest days of the year. Back in 1991, when I played with lyric verse a bit, I wrote the following short poem. It’s about the rush of awakening (amidst what many myopically dismiss as “lazy, hazy” days of summer) I perceived while observing a Central Park church picnic, when mulberries were in season:
Dawn and dusk are parted lips and
these are days of yawning
skies of chalked turquoise and
wild-willed muddied boys and
berry-stained girls in sun
dresses, too full to run.
These days are near past playing coy and
everything is near ripe
and ripening, ripening!