We may not have many apples this year, but we do have mulberries. Our white mulberry tree (morus alba) is our official bird watching tree for the month of June. If we sit on the back porch for twenty minutes, we count twenty species of birds feasting. Yesterday’s early morning bird count included cedar waxwing, red poll, cardinal, yellow finch, catbird, starling, bluebird, kingbird, English house sparrow, Baltimore oriole, and mourning dove. A few days ago I saw a flame in the tree — it was a scarlet tanager! And the tree grows in the flyway of the prehistoric blue herons, diving kingfishers, and the occasional osprey traveling between Old Frog Pond and Delaney Conservation area wetlands for fish.
The tree doesn’t require spraying, care, or attention – and every year its branches are filled with fruit.
The seeds are scattered freely by the birds and once they take root, they grow. We have small mulberry trees popping up along the pond and even under the great canopy of the catalpa outside my studio. This one doesn’t fruit, however; too much shade.
In the herbal apothecary, white mulberry is an important herb. The leaves, dried and made into a powder, are used to treat diabetes, as well as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, even the achiness from the common cold. The Chinese use the leaves, root bark, branches, and fruit as medicine and it is an official drug of the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia.
In America, the white mulberry is considered to be an invasive plant. The early colonists imported the tree when they tried to establish a silkworm industry. Only the tree took root and spread its branches across the country. However, the red mulberry (morus rubra) is a native tree, but now quite rare in Massachusetts. American Indians used the red mulberry for food and medicine. Choctaw women made cloaks by spinning the threads from the fibrous bark of young mulberry shoots. I am always amazed at the abundant offerings of plants. Not only food and shelter, but clothing, nets, fencing, and art!
We have two red mulberry trees growing on the farm. They were Arbor Day giveaway seedlings for the Town of Groton’s Arbor Day celebration a few years ago. We planted the small saplings in the open where they could grow to full size, but they have struggled with competition from field grasses. One was mowed down when someone didn’t recognize the small shoot among the weeds. Fortunately the trees are tenacious. This year, the unmowed one has fruit for the first time. The fruit is smaller than the white mulberry and ripens to deep red. It’s sweeter than white mulberries and would make a tastier and more colorful wine.
Small mammals also feed on mulberries, I often see a chipmunk munching along with the birds, but I’m told that fox, opossums, raccoons, skunks, and squirrels like them too. And of course, why not the weasel?
All around the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel,
The weasel thought 'twas all in fun, pop goes the weasel.
And just what does this popular ditty mean? It was a dance hall tune in mid 19th century England. I read that in cockney Pop refers to pawn and a weasel to a coat. It is about pawning your dress coat on Monday to get it back on Friday so you could be well dressed on Sunday. Sounds far-fetched to me. I also learned that in cloth making, the weasel was the machine that would wind yarn, and there was a pop sound every 1000 yards. This sounds more to the point especially given a later verse.
My mother taught me how to sew,
And how to thread the needle,
Every time my finger slips,
Pop! goes the weasel.
There’s something about that ‘pop’ that is appealing like the surprise of a Jack-in-the-Box toy. It’s a little scary because we never know when the pop will come, but we love the anticipation.
Perhaps the song originally came from all the activity around a mulberry tree with ripe fruit; a children’s game of feasting birds and hungry animals leaping around the tree, chasing each other to get to the fruit. And there does seem to be that ‘pop’ when the fruit is plucked off the tree. Sometimes I see a bird tug, the leaves and wings all a-flutter, and then ‘pop’ — off flies the bird with the fruit in its beak.
Mulberries are easy to grow and you can make pies, sorbets, ice cream, even smoothies with these small fruits that are loaded with antioxidants; even dry them for granola. The trees are most generous; they give and give. I appreciate discovering some of the lesser-known fruits that can grow in Massachusetts. This spring I planted aronia and goji berries, goumi, and two kiwi vines. It will take several years, but I look forward to tasting these fruits, and of course sharing it with the birds!