Recently, I was walking up Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side when I felt something squishy about the size of a potato beneath my sandals.
I looked down and saw that the sidewalk, under cover of a giant tree growing by a public school, was stained with dark purplish splotches, as if someone had broken several bottles of red wine there the night before. I realized that I was standing beneath a mulberry tree laden with fruit. Alongside it, the largest mulberry tree I had ever seen had white berries cascading from it.
Morus rubra or alba (red or white mulberry) tend to be small- to medium-size trees with irregular, variegated leaves. Notwithstanding the child’s song, they are not bushes. Both the native red, which has ripe purplish-black berries, as well as the Chinese white, which was introduced in the 19th century to support an ultimately unsuccessful silk industry and which produces ghostly pale-to-sometimes purplish fruit, are prodigious fruit-bearers.
The trees, which have hybridized, can be found throughout the New York metropolitan region and the Eastern United States (Morus alba extends to both coasts). City residents often discover sidewalks and cars littered with mulberries from late May through early July.
I’ve tasted mulberries from trees off golf courses on Staten Island and at colleges at Cambridge University, where the cooler weather means the fruiting season goes well pass July. Sometimes I encounter residents who hate Morus trees, grumbling about the messy cleanup, but no matter where I go, I enjoy mulberries’ benignly sweet flavor either in jams or straight off the tree. Like raspberries and blackberries, mulberries are aggregate fruit clusters, but without the tartness.
Last weekend, we brought our newborn to a small section of Kissena Park in Flushing, Queens, where I discovered my first mulberry tree after the death of my grandmother. Many of the mulberry trees were lush, verdant, and bearing various stages of ripening fruit — enough to stain our hands purple. Several cars along the perimeter were covered in fermenting berries.
The small red mulberry tree I found several years ago, which never fails to remind me of the cycles of life and death, was still heavy with immature white berries. I suspect it’ll be another week or so before they are ripe enough to eat.