Mulberries: Winter Observation, Summer Picking

During a recent winter walk in Eliza Howell Park, I stopped by some of the clusters of Mulberry trees that I visit in late June and early July, picking container in hand. Winter provides a good opportunity to note where and how they grow.

In Eliza Howell, almost all the Mulberry trees are found at the base of large trees that grow within the road loop. How close these trees grow to one another and to the larger tree is most evident in the winter when the leaves are off the branches.

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I thought of the nursery rhyme (“All around the mulberry bush the monkey chased the weasel”) when I noted how completely mulberry trees surround the trunk of one cottonwood tree. If I were more clever or creative, I might try to complete a line that begins with “all around the cottonwood tree….”

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Many mulberries are about 20 feet tall and, in their position under the taller trees, their branches spread and hang quite low. A lot of berries can be reached while standing on the ground. They progress from white to red to black, at which point they are ripe and ready.

Birds like mulberries, as do bird watchers.

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A comment I have heard from individuals who have come upon mulberries for the first time is “they look like blackberries.” They do have a similar shape, but they grow on trees (blackberries grow on vines), and the fruit stems are very different. The taste is also different, of course, but that is best experienced by eating newly picked berries.

There are three different black-colored edible summer berries in Eliza Howell Park: Mulberry, Black Raspberry, Blackberry (in the order in which they ripen). Black raspberry also grows on vines.

In this collage, Mulberry is on the left, Blackberry is top right, and Black Raspberry is bottom right.

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In my opinion, these three berries are the best foods to be harvested in Eliza Howell Park.

The first mulberry picking is at least 5 months away, but it is not too early to review the number and location of the trees. They may look to some like unwanted shrubs growing under larger trees, but they are worth getting to know.

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Winter is also a good time to enjoy one of the results of summer picking. 

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Jam made by Margaret Weber

Sampling Summer Berries

On July 15, 2018, while wandering the park off path, I stopped occasionally to taste the summer berries. It was a three-berry day: Mulberry, Blackberry, and Black Raspberry. All three are black in color when ripe, having passed through a red stage.

Mulberry is the earliest of the three to ripen and has the longest picking season; some ripe ones can be found before the middle of June and some are still ripening.

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Mulberry

Mulberry is a small tree and is usually found in Eliza Howell Park growing next to and under a large tree inside the road loop. Mulberry is eagerly consumed by birds and I have often spent pleasant time in a shady spot in late June or early July observing the variety of birds visiting a tree to pick up a berry or several. Six or more bird species can usually be seen in 10 minutes.

Mulberry is edible and, in addition to being eaten fresh, has often been used in jams and desserts and is sometimes used to make wine. I usually just pop a couple in my mouth and do not harvest for home.

The latest of the three to ripen is Blackberry.

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Blackberry

Blackberry is just now beginning to reach the black stage. Blackberry plants have long horizontal-growing canes with short sharp prickles (or thorns) that can snare and tear clothes – and skin. Blackberry canes sometimes form impenetrable thickets\brambles. In Eliza Howell, Blackberry is most frequently found at the edges where woods and fields meet, though small plants are starting to grow in some open un-mowed areas.

Some mammals and birds eat the fruit. As do humans. I am sampling them these days.

Black Raspberry is at the end of its fruiting season by the middle of July; only a few edible berries can still be found. The picking season is quite short, three weeks at most. This picture was taken about 2 weeks ago.

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Black Raspberry

Black Raspberries also have canes, with smaller thorns than those of Blackberries. In Eliza Howell Park, they are found along the edges, but also in the woods at times. They do not appear to be as much of a food source for birds and other wildlife as Blackberry, and definitely not as much as Mulberry.

Though I just ate a couple on my July 15 visit to the park, Black Raspberries are my favorite and I harvest a large quantity of Eliza Howell berries every year, spending many hours picking at my favorite spots. (I posted more on this, “Eliza Howell Black Raspberries: Winter and Summer,” on January 8. 2018.) Though the canes do not snag and tear as much as Blackberry, I do definitely get scratched.

This year, as I picked, I found myself thinking of the Kenny Rogers song, “The Gambler” and the line, “There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.” My version to myself about scratches: “There’ll be time enough for healin’ when the pickin’s done.”

There is another edible and tasty summer berry in the park, one that I did not sample on July 15. The Wild Strawberries ripen in June.

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Wild Strawberry

Wild summer berries: another feature of Detroit’s Eliza Howell Park.

Eliza Howell Black Raspberries: Winter and Summer

Wild black raspberries grow well in Eliza Howell Park, but I confess that I am a little reluctant to broadcast the best locations for finding these plants. There is self-interest at work, of course; I am hoping to have continued access to the berries myself.

Black raspberries are sometimes called black caps and are very different in taste from blackberries, which also grow in Eliza Howell (and ripen a little later in the summer).

In the winter, the Eliza Howell raspberries that I pick look like this.

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Each year I pick quarts of these luscious berries for eating fresh and, thanks to Margaret, for having jam for the entire year. Every time I eat a peanut butter and jam lunch, I am experiencing another reward of getting to know Eliza Howell Park well.

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Raspberries are found in different locations in the park and getting a handful while on a walk near the beginning of July is not difficult for those who keep their eyes open and are willing to depart a little from the beaten path.

Getting lots of handfuls takes knowledge of where the berries are concentrated and takes, as well, a willingness to accept the reality that wholesale picking usually involves getting personal with thorns and mosquitoes. (While it is true that I am protecting my self-interest, the mosquitoes and thorns are very real, especially the mosquitoes.)

There have been 5 or 6 major concentrations of raspberry canes (bushes) that I have harvested over the years, but old hotspots die back and I have been able to find new spots from time to time. In June I start checking the most productive sites from the previous year, but almost always find that the berries are no longer common in the some of these locations. And then I might stumble on new finds.

The berries grow in clusters on arching thorny canes and, after white blossoms in the spring, the green berries become noticeable in early June.

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Normally the berries in the clusters do not ripen all at once but one or two at a time, starting from the center. This means that picking is frequently one or two at a time, at which rate it takes a long time to pick a quart. The rate of ripening means that the same patch can be picked every 2 – 3 days. .

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Sometimes, but not frequently, it happens that large cluster of berries is ripe to pick at one time. That means fun!

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The raspberries grow in different environments, both in edges near open areas and deeper in some wooded locations. The berries in sunnier spots usually ripen earlier than those in the shade, which extends the total picking time to about three weeks, beginning in very late June (depending upon the weather up to that point in time, of course).

Now, I need to wrestle with the question of what to do if/when asked what the best locations are to pick these berries in Eliza Howell Park. Maybe I can describe how I cover myself in the heat of summer to protect from the mosquitoes and thorns. Or maybe I can explain how long it takes to pick enough for pie or jam. Or maybe I can point out exactly where to find the best berries???