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.