MULBERRIES

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 http://southafrica.co.za/mulberries.html 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.

SYRINGAS II

In August this year I posted this photograph of the large syringa (Melia azedarach)) growing on the verge of the street behind our home. Then it had lost many of is glossy green leaves and was covered in clusters of golden berries.

This is what the tree looked like last month, covered in delicately scented lilac-coloured flowers.

This particular tree was already large when we moved here over three decades ago, so I turned to a younger, shorter tree to photograph the blossoms.

Here is an even closer view:

Lastly, the blossoms with a glimpse of golden berries in the background.

This very pretty – and during summer a shady – tree is an alien invasive that is propagated mainly by seed. Mousebirds are particularly fond of eating the fruit, which is also carried along by water in drains, canals and rivers. The uncontrolled spread of these trees can cause them to invade – and even replace – natural vegetation in some parts of the country. Given that the fruit remains on the trees for a long time, it is thought that the presence of syringa trees can even change the feeding dynamics of frugivorous birds as they become an easy source of food.

 

CASTOR OIL PLANT

In these end days of winter when most of the veld is covered with the grey-brown or faded yellow of grasses that have lost their seeds, become brittle and are – like us – waiting for the first spring rains to bring forth green shoots, any bright green leaves stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. While a host of trees and shrubs in South Africa are evergreen, we are familiar with them; with their shape, their leaves and their colour. What stands out are plants like this one that do not belong. The Castor Oil Plant (Ricinus communis) is a shrub with waxy stems and large star-shaped leaves with serrated edges. This is another invasive alien that I learned from early childhood to keep well away from for it is toxic. In fact, those reddish stems (to me) serve as a warning not to fiddle with.

The Castor Oil Plant is thought to have originated from the tropical parts of Africa and, as with other alien invasive plants, they have in the past been grown for their ornamental qualities as well as on a commercial scale here. The problem is that escapees have become wide-spread weeds that thrive in the disturbed soil along the edges of roads and open land as well as along water courses. There is one growing to the right of  the make-shift ladder which is next to a river in the following photograph.

The spiny fruits develop on an erect spike. Although castor oil is extracted from the seeds, they should on no account be eaten! The seeds are highly toxic, especially for horses, although it is interesting to read that livestock are able to ingest the leaves without any ill-effects.

As a declared invader plant, it must be eradicated if found growing on one’s property.

SYRINGAS

There was a time when Syringa (Melia azedarach) trees – also known as Persian Lilac (not a name I am familiar with) were planted as attractive shade trees in gardens and as street trees.

The Syringa is the large tree on the right, spreading across the street.

The origin of these trees is said to be in India and the Far East, from where they were largely imported for ornamental purposes. Apparently they were already well established in Natal gardens by 1894 and in the Lowveld in the early 1900s. Our municipality removed the indigenous trees we had planted on our verge and replaced them with syringa trees – what a scourge they are proving to be!

Their popularity as street and garden trees stems from them being both fast-growing and look attractive year-round. Their glossy green leaves provide deep shade and in spring the trees are covered in delicately scented lilac-coloured flowers, favoured by bees for their pollen.  This fragrance is especially noticeable in the late afternoons and early evenings after a warm day. The flowers are followed by clusters of golden berries which remain even after the trees are bare of leaves. My parents exhorted us from an early age not to eat syringa berries as they are highly toxic!

Given that each tree produces a significant number of berries, it is not surprising that that there are syringa trees all over the country, except for the driest regions. Syringas are invasive trees that are known to have choked streams and formed dense thickets that displace indigenous vegetation.

I have noticed that, among other birds, the Speckled Mousebirds and Knysna Turacos enjoy eating the ripe berries. Cape Turtle Doves and Laughing Doves settle on the streets to eat the fallen seeds that have been crushed by passing vehicles. Seeds are also dispersed by water. A look at the neglected watercourses that run through the town show how easily the trees propagate along the edges and clog up the flow of the water.