What do you immediately associate with mulberries?

I think for many of us the answer might be silkworms. I recall having silkworms as a child – shoeboxes filled with these stripy creatures – and getting some of them to spin beautiful bookmarks in various shapes cut from card. I would pick mulberry leaves by the fistful to feed them. Beetroot leaves would result in a pinkish hue to the silk. It was always fun watching them spin their golden cocoons from which furry white moths would emerge. They would lay their eggs in the shoebox, which we would then put away until about September of the following year. This is when the whole cycle would start again.

These silkworms required regular maintenance: we would have to remove the withered leaves from the box (how many tiny silkworms were tossed away during that process?) and clean the box, replenish the box with fresh leaves and make sure the silkworms were all back in place. Their feeding frenzy would continue unabated – it was fascinating to watch how quickly the leaves would be consumed.

A tall, sturdy mulberry tree grew in our garden. During the fruiting season, my brothers and I would shin up the tree to eat the fat, juicy, sun-warmed fruit to our hearts content. We would come down with purple-stained faces, hands, and clothes. Even the soles of our feet would be stained from having stood in the fallen fruit. Sometimes my mother would ask us to fill a little basket so that we could have fresh dark purple mulberries as a dessert – either on their own if there were enough, or she would mix them into a dark jelly. If the ‘harvest’ was particularly bountiful, my Mom would make mulberry jam – a taste of heaven!

What happens to silkworms? I think they pass from one generation of school children to the next. Although I have seen cocoons, eggs and silkworms for sale online – I cannot remember any money changing hands either when I was a child or when my own children went through the ‘silkworm phase’. Perhaps I was only too pleased to be rid of them!

An enormous, spreading white mulberry graced the driveway next to our farmhouse. The fruit from this tree seemed fatter than the purple variety, and was white with a slight tinge of purple. While the white mulberries had a different taste, they too were sweet and were consumed in large quantities while we sat on the sturdy branches. Apparently the white mulberry is invasive and may no longer be planted without a permit – not that we saw any other plants in our farm garden.

There must be silkworms all over the country: it wasn’t long after we moved to the Eastern Cape before our children brought silkworms home from school. Finding mulberry leaves was not an easy task and so we planted a tree in our garden to ensure a regular supply. Birds loved the fruit so much that we didn’t get much of a show in, but the silkworms thrived. In due course they must have been passed on to another generation of young children. The tree was blown over in a storm and has not been replaced.

According to mulberries are thought to have originated in China, Japan and the foothills of the Himalayas. The Dutch East India Company imported mulberry trees to South Africa in 1726 in an attempt to establish a silk industry here.

A young mulberry tree has sprung up on the verge of the street that runs behind our home. Its position suggests that it wasn’t planted there deliberately. The tree is never watered and is regularly chomped by the Urban Herd. Right now it is bearing the most delicious fruit that is just about right for picking – unless a cow gets in first!

Do you remember singing the nursery rhyme:

Here we go round the mulberry bush,
The mulberry bush,
The mulberry bush.
Here we go round the mulberry bush
On a cold and frosty morning.

33 thoughts on “MULBERRIES

  1. The mulberry across the road from our farmhouse was my first thought. We used to climb up into it to enjoy them, but always picked off the little stems.

    In Grandma Leora’s memoirs she tells of a mulberry tree in town, on which her kids had nailed “steps” and had their favorite roosts. The oldest son Delbert read up there, then came down using his “Tarzan technique.”

    Leora also canned the berries. They’d place clean sheets below, then Delbert climbed up to shake the tree so the ripe berries would land on the sheets. Leora combined them with other fruits to make full glass canning jars.


  2. Lovely, descriptive post stirring my own memories of silkworms, juicy fruit and the most delicious jam!
    I buy fresh mealworms for our garden visitors (birds, squirrels and lizards all love them!) and recently came upon a silkworm breeder selling silkworms for feeding birds and small reptiles.
    I’m considering buying a batch.


    • Glad I stirred your memories! I would love to have some mulberry jam now! I was interested to read online about mulberry leaves being used as fodder and to see how many people sell silkworms as feed too.


  3. When I learnt the rhyme in kindergarten I neither knew mulberries nor frosty mornings! Since then I’ve eaten purplish and also green mulberries and love them. A rare happy day when they are found in the market, kept on slabs of ice.


  4. I associate mulberries with birds and a messy lawn! 😉 Fascinating that kids there have a ‘silkworm phase.’ Much like our Monarch raising. A great science project for kids to learn metamorphosis.


    • Mulberry trees are messy – as are the Natal figs in our garden. I had not thought of silkworm raising being a regional past time – perhaps children here are introduced to them at primary school in order to learn metamorphosis and, as they breed so well, teachers have been only too happy for their charges to take some home!

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  5. We had a huge mulberry tree at the bottom of our garden, when I was a young boy, that would get leaves a month before our neighbour’s and our neighbour’s would still have leaves long after ours had lost theirs so we had a supply of leaves for a long time. My friends, and strangers, in the neighbourhood would arrive every day with bags to fill with picked leaves during “silkworm season”. We attempted to get the moths to spin all sizes of silk shapes and compared them with each other. Once the eggs were laid, the shoe boxes were cut up and the pieces of card with the eggs on were stored at the back of my cupboard. What consternation and panic the next year when I would find little black silkworms crawling through my clothes. I trick I learnt was to keep the eggs in the fridge until a convenient time to hatch. Once out of the fridge they would hatch within days.


  6. I also have strong memories of mulberry stains on the soles of my bare feet. My mother was not fond of baking but in mulberry season she used to make a really good baked apple and mulberry pie using mulberries from the garden.


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