Around the Mulberry Bush

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.

White Mulberries

White Mulberries

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!

Willow Sculpture Rises from the Earth by Trevor Leat

Willow Sculpture Rises from the Earth by Trevor Leat

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.

Red Mulberry

Red Mulberry

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!

Fructus

I am sitting with a bowl of cherries beside me and am reminded of the little-known painter, Giovanna Garzoni (1600 -1670). Garzoni spent most of her life in Rome painting vibrant still life paintings which were collected by her many patrons who appreciated her earthy sensuality and botanical realism. The fruits she painted are not idealized specimens, but real fruit, perhaps picked from trees nearby, with blemishes and crinkled leaves, even an occasional insect hovering. Her choice of watercolor and tempera rather than oils gives spontaneity to her paintings.

Bowl of Cherries, Giovanna Garzoni

Bowl of Cherries, Giovanna Garzoni

Garzoni clearly loved to paint fruit. In common usage, the word fruit refers to the sweet and fleshy product of a tree or plant that contains seeds and is eaten as food. An apple, as well as mango or pear all fit this description. The botanical explanation is a little more specific — any part of a seed-bearing plant that contains the fertilized seeds that will produce a new plant. But I like the definition of fruit that comes from the derivation of the word — from Middle English, via Old French, from the Latin fructus meaning enjoyment.  

Giovanna Garzoni was also known as the chaste Giovanna. Though she married briefly, her marriage was annulled (you couldn’t divorce back then) because it had never been consummated. Her male biographer wrote that she took a vow of chastity; also, that her father thought her husband was practicing witchcraft and urged her to divorce him.

These explanations seem a little confusing. It’s men, after all, who have written her biography. She was one of the few women in the 17th century who received an education and was financially independent. She worked in Venice, Florence, Turin, Naples, and finally settled in Rome. She traveled to Paris and London. Apparently her paintings were in so much demand that she could charge whatever she wanted. 

From my perspective, because of her dedication to her art, she knew that she needed to create a life where she could be free. Had she had children, she would not have been able to work full-time as a painter, traveling from city to city, often staying for weeks or months with patrons.  

Who can determine whether someone is chaste or not and what exactly does this mean? Who knows, maybe the chaste Giovanna was concocted so she could annul that marriage. Maybe she had women lovers — and they didn't count in those days. How do we know that she didn’t have secret trysts? After all, her subjects were rarely allegorical or religious, heady stuff, but fruit and nature, the tactile tangible world.  And remember, the derivation of fructus is enjoyment!

Her rapturous paintings certainly suggest that she experienced intimate connection with the 'other', with the world, and knew love and desire, betrayal and beauty. Unlike Cezanne’s art, her work did not influence the direction of modern art, but I think of her life and art as an inspiration, especially to other women artists.

Looking at Garzoni’s paintings reminded me of a friend, Cita Scott, I hadn’t been in contact with for 15 years, also a woman painter of exuberant still lifes. She responded immediately to my email saying, “I have always loved this fig painting — without paying any attention to who painted it. In fact, I still have some postcards of it in my desk.”  

Plums and Fig Leaves, Giovanna Garzoni

Plums and Fig Leaves, Giovanna Garzoni

My email prompted her to look through more of Garzoni’s work.  She described scrolling through her paintings as a decadent indulgence  .  .  .

Her pears are frequently ripe to spoiling, their curvilinear shapes, abstractions; her peas become beauty queens; her hazelnuts are visited and revisited, frocked and defrocked…her asparagus kick their pink heels sideways in a cancan at the Folies Bergère, with carnations in their hair… these are dreams and fantasies... delightful, highly personalized poems and messages, which leave me wondering about Giovanna herself. remarkable!  (what do you think she was like? what drove her?…)

Stillscape, Cita Scott

Stillscape, Cita Scott

Cita’s Scott’s still life paintings of flowers and fruit make me think that they are revelers at a wild bacchanalia. In the painting above the apples tantalizingly touch each other, the pepper desires the eggplant, and the grapes are about to burst with juice. (You can see more of her work at citascott.com.) I don’t’ know if Scott would agree that Garzoni influenced her painting, but I certainly see a connection. And I am grateful that Garzoni’s art helped to reconnect us.

When you next pick up an apple or cherry or grape, take a good look at it, it’s color, shape, substance, light — and, be a painter for a moment, appreciate its ecstatic presence. Then enjoy.