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.


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….”


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.


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.


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.


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


Jam made by Margaret Weber

Late Winter Color: Red Osier Dogwood

While walking in Eliza Howell Park during the many gray days and the occasional sunny days of February and early March, I like to stop by a Red Osier Dogwood. This red-stemmed shrub provides brighter color when almost all other park plants are gray or brown.


Red osier is a native flowering deciduous shrub that grows to about 6 – 10 feet in height. The young branches and twigs are reddish during the dormant season, getting brighter as the winter progresses. Older branches do not show the same red.

It is sometimes grown in gardens as an ornamental and gardeners who want only red winter branches prune it down close to the ground about every three years.


There are only a few red osier dogwoods in Eliza Howell. The one pictured immediately above is found on the little island with birch and spruce trees where the road entering from Fenkell starts the loop.

Though it is best known for its wintertime branches and twigs, it is an attractive shrub at all times of the year. The fruit is white, as can be seen in this picture from late June (the same plant as above).


Blackberry stems (canes) are also reddish at this time of the year, but, with their evident prickles (thorns), they are not easily confused with red osier dogwood.


Blackberry thorns snag and hold on. The red osier draws me close by its simple attractiveness…


…and is a March highlight every year.


Thorns, Prickles, and Spines

I usually call them all “thorns,” all those sharp, pointed, stiff parts of plants that we usually become most aware of when they scratch, prick, or snag. Winter, with the absence of leaves, is a good time to look more closely at the branches and stems of the plants in Eliza Howell Park and to note the variety of “thorns.”

True thorns, botanically speaking, are modified branches. In EHP, they can be found on such trees as hawthorn (first picture) and buckthorn (second picture).



Thorns grow from deep in the woody structure of the plant and are not easily broken off.

Prickles are also sharp outgrowths of plant stems, but they tend to be shorter. And, because they grow from the outer layers of the plant, they are more easily broken off.

I encounter prickles in Eliza Howell most often in berry patches (and prickles account for most of my scratches). This picture is of a wild blackberry cane.


The plant that is most commonly recognized as having “thorns,” both historically and currently, is the rose. As in the French proverb (“No rose without a thorn”), the beauty of the flower is often contrasted with the hurt or risk from the thorn.

It does not sound quite the same to say it, but if we were to be scientifically exact, we would call roses prickly, not thorny. Rose “thorns” are prickles.

This picture is of the stem of a wild rose in Eliza Howell and the following one is of a garden rose.



Spines are not easy to find in winter because they grow from the leaves and fruiting part of plants and drop with them in the fall. They tend to very thin and, while they might bend, they are often very sharp.

Note the spines on the thistle.


I often warn field trip participants to be very careful when grabbing hold of a chestnut; the spines on the bur (outer shell) are sharp.


Thorns, prickles, and spines all seem to have similar function, to help protect plants from herbivores. They simply take somewhat different forms.

I do not propose that we stop using the generic name “thorn” to apply to prickles and spines as well as to true thorns. I find it of interest, however, to note their differences. It is another little insight into the fascinating variations that exist in the natural world.

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.



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.



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.


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.


Wild Strawberry

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