I remember growing up in my mother’s garden: Tall stalks of corn, overgrown zucchini bushes, large heads of cabbages — all part of the bounty grown for our dinner table. My mother canned and made preserves from our seasonal bounty, but we also had wild foods as part of our seasonal harvests.
The wild grapes lining the backyard fence were turned into jellies and canned juice. Morel mushrooms in the spring were added to eggs and pasta. Feral apples were picked off the wild apple trees near our elementary school. Wild foods were also a part of my childhood.
As I think back, I remember more and more wild food memories. They don’t come to mind immediately, and perhaps that is because they just were a part of my childhood — nothing particularly fancy or romantic.
One wild food memory, though, stands out. It was the evening I made my first summer fruit pie in my college apartment.
It was a mulberry pie, with berries I gathered alone one hot, sweaty summer night on a sandy trail beachside near to my apartment after an evening run. The pie itself wouldn’t have won a medal at the state fair by any stretch— it was runny, the fruit filling not very thick, and the crust was lumpy. But you know what? To me, the pie was amazing. And perfect.
The memory of it all embedded into my mind forever because it was such a sensual experience.
As my culinary abilities grew, and I found myself looking to the trees, hedges, weeds for “unloved” plants for my teas and meals at my table. Dandelions, the violets, the nettles, the burdock, and even the garlic mustard became my friends.
Overtime, I learned to sense and anticipate the subtle changes in the seasons, almost like a sixth sense. Those dry days in June? Better check on the roses and the elderflowers — one round of summer thunderstorms could decimate the delicate blooms that I so love to dry for tea. And nuts falling in the green gulch next to my kitchen window? Better harvest those walnuts before the squirrels do.
I feel so empowered with this ability to “read” the wild world around me. And now, my own children are cultivating a deep plant relationship as they work alongside me in the garden and accompany me on hikes in the woods and fields – even along the sidewalks – to gather wild foods.
The common mulberry (Morus spp.: Morus alba or Morus rubra) is one of the first berries of summer to harvest, as well as one of the easiest berries to discover and gather for simple snacking or cooking, especially for the urban forager.
Compared to other summer fruits, the mulberry has a slightly unremarkable flavor — it isn’t very sweet, isn’t very tart, isn’t significantly jammy for the dark berry that it is. That said, perhaps it is the delight of encountering such an abundant berry – especially in the urban areas, where mulberry is a common ornamental. It is a nice, cooling berry to snack on while out on the trail or on a run as the summer warms up. Easy picking and easy snacking.
The mulberry is high in antioxidants, and can be gathered in large quantity, strained through a sieve and made into juice that can be then made into a cocktail syrup and flavored with other herbs like lemon balm, basil or even lemon verbena.
The mulberry harvest can be made into jam and fruit leather (again, running through a food mill to remove the more seedy bits and the fruit stemlets). The mulberry can also be baked into a pie alone or mixed together with the first of the summer strawberries. If used alone, the fruit can be quite runny, so add in an appropriate thickener to make sure the pie is not too soupy.
The mulberry is often most noticed as a small tree, growing in heights of 25-30 feet (though it can grow to be as tall as 70!). Its young bark ranges from yellowish to orangish-brown, with scattered large white lenticels. Older bark is brown and ridged with an occasional glimpse of orange inner bark. If the roots should be unearth by erosion or contraction, they are distinctively orange.
The mulberry is abundant and a common plant. There’s not need to worry about future harvests, as the seeds are spread by the birds who also love the mulberry fruit. The mulberry also makes for an excellent edible landscape tree and fits well into a permaculture landscape design.
The white mulberry is a native of China, but is a common ornamental planting in gardens, courtyards, and municipal parks across the Midwest and is naturalized in some areas. The red mulberry is native and a common tree found at the edge of the woods, along trails, in partial sun and shade. Around summer solstice, the juicy fruits of the mulberry cause a nuisance of a mess wherever they fall; on the sidewalk and stoop, staining the pavement with their black juice.
The leaves of both species are alternate, simple, more or less heart-shaped and palmately veined with three main veins and rounded teeth along the edges. Both the white and red mulberry trees may have mitten-shaped leaves. The white mulberry leaves are dark and shiny on top and feel smooth. The red are not shiny, they feel rough. It’s fruits are longer, juicer and better tasting than the white.
The mulberry fruit is easy to gather. Pick them by hand and place them into a bowl as the fruit is delicate and will not withstand being thrown into a bag or harvest basket. Note that the fruit will stain hands, bowl, clothing and can get stuck in the soles of your shoes. The berries do not have a long shelf life and should be eaten fresh or processed in the kitchen (removing stems, freezing), for later use as soon as possible.
Interested in learning more about wild plants as food and medicine? Take a look at my books, “Midwest Medicinal Plants,” and “Midwest Foraging” (Timber Press, OR) – both available on Amazon.com.