The Memory of a Mulberry Tree

Not long ago I posted a photo of mulberries to my Facebook page and by the end of the day I had scores of comments and emails filled with the mulberry-related reminiscences. I was surprised how many people had a mulberry tree as part of their childhood. Reading the comments, I too tasted the mulberries of Esfahan and Israel, climbed the tall trees in Romania and Texas and made jam in California. In sharing stories, we made our own Silk Road spanning the mulberry memories and the globe. It also turned out be quite a cosmopolitan tree with the Eastern roots. It’s called tuta in Aramaic, tut in Persian, Arabic, Turkish, and Hebrew, duda in Romanian. In Ukrainian, it’s either called tut or shelkovytsa, the silk tree berry.

In my part of Ukraine mulberry trees are ubiquitous. They’re a reminder of the old history: of the manor estates of the Poltavan gentry and of the silk farms established as part of the Five Year plans by the Soviet government. Both the gentry and the five year plans are long gone. The mulberries remain. The berries cover the sidewalks in indelible ink stains and scent of fermented, overripe fruit hangs in the summer haze.

I pick them on my way from the neighboring village, where I go to buy groceries. Mulberries color my fingers and my lips dark purple and the taste, of ripe fig and blackberries, reminds me of the other mulberry stained summers.

The past is another country, an old saying warns.  Perhaps. Yet every time a moment from the past is remembered, it becomes new. The act of remembering shortens the distance between then and now, and so the memories of the past fill the present like the tesserae of a mosaic. I like this idea more than the vision of the past as irretrievably lost, locked behind the frontiers of the land where one could never return. Remembering is reliving, revisiting, reviving. Sometimes the only catalyst needed is one ripe mulberry.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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33 Comments

  • Danaki: A very poetic article, Victoria. Thank you! Like many countries, the mulberry tree is also rooted in Lebanon’s past in silk trade. My memories span hot summers in Beirut cooled off with ice-cold water sweetened with mulberry cordial as well as mulberry ice cream, but mostly of a summer car breakdown in midday heat on a countryside road (on our way to my dad’s village) and a mulberry bush that made the wait for a rescue car a tad sweeter (and stickier). July 13, 2018 at 8:55am Reply

    • Victoria: Such a great memory! You mention of mulberry ice cream made me think of amazing Sicilian mulberry granita. It looked deep violet and tasted floral and delicately spicy.

      I also love mulberry molasses mixed with tahini. July 13, 2018 at 9:53am Reply

      • Danaki: indeed, this was one of the flavours in the arabic ice cream section, so similar to granita in fact.
        drinking cordial always gave that dry in the middle of your tongue feel, tannic perhaps? though i don’t know why.

        molasses? never had that. always grape, carob or jejube molasses were my favourite. July 13, 2018 at 1:24pm Reply

        • Victoria: It’s similar to grape or carob molasses, but it tastes a little bit more sour. July 13, 2018 at 2:33pm Reply

  • OnWingsofSaffron: I was born in Windhoek, Namibia, and in one of the houses in which we lived there was a—in my memory at least—very large mulberry tree. I remember the slightly sour taste of the berries which always were a bit too soft, the pitch black earth beneath the tree and the slightly withered, crumpled leaves; Windhoek is a very dry place.
    I wish I had access to that tree now! July 13, 2018 at 11:20am Reply

    • Victoria: Fascinating! I had no idea that mulberry grew in Namibia too. I too remember the fermented, sweet scent of overripe mulberries. July 13, 2018 at 2:38pm Reply

      • OnWingsofSaffron: I doubt it is indigenous; it must have been planted there. But the Namibian weather isn‘t miles away from the Iranian climate. July 13, 2018 at 4:08pm Reply

  • nan: I live in the US and my grandparents were from Russia. They had a mulberry tree in their garden and I my memories as a child visiting them in the summer include a lot of stained hands, mouths, clothing(I wasn’t the most careful eater as a child), and also bottoms of shoes from the berries that had fallen on the ground. They also grew different types of current bushes, gooseberries, and cherry trees. I would go strawberry and blueberry picking with them. I think I definitely got my love of berries from them. July 13, 2018 at 12:13pm Reply

    • Victoria: The mulberry stained fingers, clothes and shoes were part of my childhood. 🙂

      I also love berries of all kinds, especially currants. July 13, 2018 at 2:41pm Reply

  • STASSA PAPADIAMANTI: Mulberry tree? In the courtyard of my father’s house there was an old mulberry tree with a cavity in the trunk, so large that we could play, two little girls, setting up our dollhouses.
    A swing was always hanging on its branches and we could see nests of birds and fireflies during June evenings.

    Our grandmother was throwing its leaves in the hut with the silkworms and then, during long winter nights, she was making on the small loom, silkcloth for embroidery, scarves, handkerchiefs and ribbons,.
    The dark red berries were always enough. We made doll-food, our grandfather was eating from the tiny dishes sitting on the table under the mulberry tree, proud of his little cookers.
    They were also enough for the the rest family served in glass bowls with icecubes as a dessert.
    Next morning there were more for the magpie’s rapine.
    Then a thunterbolt burned it, said mom, or it was the grandfather’s ax, because the house was in danger, who knows?
    The mulberry tree has been rooted in our hearts and the berries of memories are getting sweeter year by year….
    sorry for my english… July 13, 2018 at 4:17pm Reply

    • OnWingsofSaffron: This is the stuff out of which novels are written. I can see it—exactly as you wrote it word for word—as the first paragraph in the first chapter of a wonderful novel!
      I wish I could go on reading your story, Stasi Papadiamamti. Thank you indeed! July 14, 2018 at 2:34am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for this beautiful story! I read it once and then later re-read it again. So wistful! July 15, 2018 at 10:29am Reply

  • Bettina Douglas: Having a mulberry trees in the back yard is also a Queensland tradition from the days when people had bigger gardens. I think for fruit rather than silk.
    I am a relatively recent arrival but I know many people who have childhood memories of eating mulberries straight from the tree. It is an interesting international thread. July 13, 2018 at 6:09pm Reply

    • Chrissie Jeffery: As a child I often visited my great grandmother who lived on the north coast of New South Wales in Australia . She had an enormous old mulberry tree, which was wonderful to sit under with bright green canopy and eat mulberries , better still was to collect a large dish of them and assist her in making mulberry tarts. Just the fruit with caster sugar baked in a short crust pastry base it’s sweet sour jammyness was heaven with a blob of cream from the milk pail skimming nothing has ever matched the flavour of those mulberries since. July 13, 2018 at 8:23pm Reply

      • Victoria: I could smell and taste those tarts as I read your comment. July 15, 2018 at 10:30am Reply

    • Victoria: Isn’t it? I was also surprised and delighted by how many of us has a mulberry tree in our childhood. July 15, 2018 at 10:30am Reply

  • elvie: Thank You Victoria, this was very touching. Mulberries are also rooted deep in many of my childbood and adult memories. We have plenty of them here in the Danube bend, and as a kid with a si gle mom, I was always very happy to have something sweet on walks from the playground for free:).
    Nowadays I pick them with my kids, we have a secret small tree in a sunny spot with the sweetest berries ever, and they always thecripest hust when the schoolyear is ending. It is becoming a little tradition of us to pick a handful each walk home from school. And I love it. I always loved teaching my kids what things are edible and healthy around us in nature.
    Thank you. July 14, 2018 at 12:30am Reply

    • Victoria: You’ve doing such a great service to them. I’m grateful to my grandmothers who taught me to differentiate plants and explained their properties, scents, tastes. July 15, 2018 at 10:31am Reply

  • Jilliecat: Beautiful and evocative. July 14, 2018 at 4:40am Reply

  • Jillie: Beautiful and evocative. July 14, 2018 at 4:50am Reply

    • Jillie: Apologies for double-posting. July 14, 2018 at 11:00am Reply

  • Maggie M: Bringing back memories! I love all mulberries, fresh, dried, but especially the Shah tut, large, dark, plump and juicy. July 14, 2018 at 9:30am Reply

    • Victoria: I discovered shah tut this year at the market in Ukraine, and I was so surprised to see their size. Ours are the regular variety, although we have both the red/purple and the white kind. July 15, 2018 at 10:33am Reply

  • Lydia: I love your cultural history/childhood memory posts so much.

    There was a mulberry tree outside my apartment in Georgia (state, not country). At first I considered having it cut down because it was completely blocking my back window view. Then I came to cherish it. It was replete with berries each spring and summer. There were so many different kinds of birds visiting the tree, I could have hosted an entire bird-watching afternoon just watching that one tree. It felt like it had a welcoming, celebratory spirit.

    One day I came home to discover that the apartment management had brought in a landscaping company to cut it, and many other beautiful trees in the area, down. They claimed they were either storm hazards or growing too near the buildings. That may have been true (although I suspected the company got overly destruction-happy on that job), but even now, years later and living in a different state, I still miss that tree. Mulberry trees are magic. July 14, 2018 at 2:29pm Reply

    • Victoria: I can understand your distress really well. Our neighbors in Poltava cut down two ancient linden trees, and I still can’t get used to it. I miss those trees so much.

      Thank you for a touching story. July 15, 2018 at 10:35am Reply

  • Austenfan: I’ve never actually seen a mulberry tree or tasted mulberries. I know of their existence but only because the tree is mentioned in the bible somewhere. Isn’t that odd? According to the internet there are mulberries in the Netherlands.

    Blackberries, on the other hand, I know very well, my parent used to make jam of them, as they did with elderberries. So your post has reminded me of my past when I would be horse riding as a child and all the while memorise places with good blackberry bushes and elderberry trees. July 15, 2018 at 7:17am Reply

    • Victoria: I haven’t seen them sold at the markets here, although I’ve seen mulberry trees in France. They do look like blackberries, but the taste is different. Mulberries are sweet, reminiscent of figs. July 15, 2018 at 10:38am Reply

  • Andy: I love mulberries, and grew up with the trees around me, but didn’t realize what they were or how delicious I would find them until somewhat recently. They’re now one of my favorite fruits of summer. I recently came across a fascinating article about a Philadelphia area nurseryman and agricultural pioneer named John Hershey, who worked to develop what he termed “food forests” starting in the 1930s. He travelled far and wide to locate the most productive and sweetest mulberry trees (and other native or food crop trees) growing in nature, bringing back cuttings he could then root and multiply across the area landscape. It reminded me of your description of the mulberry trees in Poltava, as some of Hershey’s trees still survive today, though their heritage was nearly forgotten until recently. July 17, 2018 at 12:51pm Reply

  • Daniel Jeter: During training sessions at martial arts camps, we used to raid the local orchards and fill up on Mulberries. Later, we would hide up in the trees to see if we could ‘ambush’ the instructors. Of course, we probably looked like purple lipped and fingertipped ninjas. July 17, 2018 at 5:33pm Reply

  • En_passant: What a mouth watering and moving post. Thank you! I don’t post often, but I have just indulged in everyone’s stories and was compelled to share mine.
    I grew up in a fertile part of Central Asia, and every summer I was sent to a pioneer camp located in the region of Tyan Shan mountain range. The path that led out of our pavilion had 2 huge trees, mullberry and apricot. I remember being very eager to be sent out on different “tasks” just so I can take that path and enjoy a feast of mullberries. The berries were white and didn’t stain, so no one could ever guess why it took me forever to get back (they never saw my pockets full of ripe apricots either).
    Throughout the years, I was in different camps with different paths, but the only one I vividly remember is that one. The taste of those berries made me carry a childhood memory that otherwise could have been forgotten. July 20, 2018 at 3:33am Reply

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