When you think of food that grows on trees, a few obvious fruits come to mind: apples, cherries, peaches... But what about mulberries?
To the enterprising urban forager, mulberry trees, found across the eastern and central United States, are like a giant, free snack bar. Ignored by most, their branches are loaded with mildly sweet, soft berries (different varieties of trees produce white, red or black that are good for eating and also make excellent pies and jams). Some enthusiasts make mulberries into wine or even dry the berries like raisins.
To find a mulberry tree, keep your eyes on the ground. In the late spring/early summer when mulberry trees bear their fruit, sidewalks and roads underneath mulberry trees become deeply stained and sticky, covered with ripe berries that fall to the earth.
Whenever I see a mulberry tree, I pull over and start picking.
Over the years, I've learned to simply ignore the questioning stares that I get from passersby while I'm standing in someone's yard eating berries. I've found homeowners, though, are generally OK with mulberry poaching. The quantity of fruit on the trees and the speed with which it ripens make for big messes on lawns and sidewalks, and they're glad to see someone besides the birds digging into the harvest.
As a kid, I recall riding in the car one day with my dad, a longtime picker of mulberries. We screeched to a halt after spotting a gigantic mulberry tree on a steep hill in front of someone's house. Scads of plump, sweet black mulberries glistened in the sun after a summer rain. We fought to keep our balance on the wet hillside while stuffing ourselves full of berries. One of us slipped, and we both went sliding down the hillside carpeted with ripe berries, hooting with laughter. Decades later, the tree is still there, still cranking out mulberries. Every time I drive past I think of that summer day.
(Disclaimer: When consuming anything wild, make sure you do your homework. Look in a tree guide or ask somebody who knows to make sure those really are mulberries and not something else.)
Next stop on my fruit forager's food train: a cherry tree downtown in my old neighborhood that produces the sweetest, loveliest cherries imaginable. I'll have to beat my master baker friend Sara to the punch, though. Every year she swoops down when the cherries are ripe to make a stunning, found-food pie.
Ah, modern hunter- gathering at its finest.
Contact Craig Bida: cbida(at)citybeat.com