Mulberries are one of the first wild fruits to ripen in late spring and early summer. Frequently cursed by property owners who detest how these fruits of the Morus genus stain their pavement, mulberries are a delicious fruit that grows on several continents.
In the wild, look for mulberries in floodplain woodlands. They are also a common urban and suburban tree. Mulberry trees can get up to 60 feet tall, but they are most often much shorter than that. The trees have a scruffy appearance, with the branches sticking out at odd angles.
You’ll frequently find three leaf shapes growing on the same mulberry tree: a 2-lobed mitten shape, a 3-lobed leaf, and a roughly heart-shaped leaf. Note that there is another tree out there with those three leaf shapes: sassafras. But the leaf margins of sassafras are smooth whereas those of mulberry are toothed. When there is only one leaf shape on a mulberry, it will be the simple heart shape. Whichever shape, mulberry leaves grow in an alternate arrangement.
The bark of mulberry trees develops craggy vertical furrows as the trees age. The branches emerge from the short trunks just a few feet above the ground.
The fruits look very much like blackberries, although depending on the species the fruit may be ripe when it is dark purple or when it is pale pink. (FYI, blackberries do not grow on trees. Whenever someone tells me they found a “blackberry tree,” I know that what they really found was mulberry.)
Peak mulberry picking season stretches from late spring through early summer. It’s easy to tell when the berries are ripening because they start dropping onto the ground.
The quickest way to collect them is to lay down a drop cloth and then shake the branches: the ripe mulberries will fall immediately. If you prefer to pick them off of the tree, take only those that yield to your gentle pull without resistance. If you have to tug, that one isn’t ripe yet.
Harvesting the berries does not hurt the tree. And you’re actually curbing the spread of these sometimes invasive species by gathering the fruits.
Whether fallen fruit or plucked from the branch, mulberries always come off the tree with a small bit of stem attached. These are a hassle to remove, and often I don’t bother. But if you’re serving guests you may want to take the time.
The easiest way to do this is to freeze them first: spread the berries in a single layer on baking sheets and freeze them, uncovered, for an hour or two. Don’t just dump fresh berries into a container and freeze them or you’ll end up with a berry brick — the single layer freeze prevents clumping. It is much easier to pull the little stems off the solid, frozen berries than to do so while they are fresh and squishy.
Mulberries are mildly sweet and pleasant raw. They are also good in pies, ice cream, jam, and homemade wine. If you decide to make mulberry jam, keep in mind that they they require some added pectin and acidity.
As with other berries, mulberries freeze well.
Dried mulberries are a worthy ingredient in their own right. When dried, the mulberry flavor intensifies in a wonderful way. They are great to snack on as is, but they are also delicious when rehydrated and used in recipes such as this chutney.
Yield 1 pint
Sweet, tangy, and lightly spicy, this chutney is great with any kind of meat, poultry, cooked whole grain, or cheese. The flavor is especially good if you use a combination of fresh and dried mulberries (but fine to use frozen instead of fresh).
• 2 cups fresh or rehydrated dried mulberries, or a combination of both
• 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
• 1/2 cup finely chopped apple
• 1/3 cup honey
• 1/4 cup finely chopped onion
• 1/4 cup raisins
• 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
• 1 tsp red chile pepper flakes
• 1 tsp kosher or sea salt
• 3/4 tsp ground spicebush berries OR 1/2 tsp ground allspice plus 1/4 tsp ground pepper
• 1/4 tsp ground cardamom
1. Combine all the ingredients in a pot over medium heat. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has evaporated or been absorbed.
2. Refrigerate and use within two weeks, freeze for up to one year, or pack into canning jars leaving 1/2-inch head space and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes (adjust canning time if you live at a high altitude).
Leda Meredith teaches foraging internationally and is the author of several books including The Forager’s Feast: How to Identify, Gather, and Prepare Wild Edibles and Northeast Foraging: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Beach Plums to Wineberries. You can find more of her recipes and food adventures on her blog and videos. Read all of Leda's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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