Monday, April 1, 2013
The plant I highlight this month harkens back to the early history and founding of Georgia as a solution to overflowing British prisons. The idea was to ship prisoners who were in jail due to debt, and have them work the land here, cultivating silk from the Georgian mulberry tree. However, the plan was a failure, as the mulberry tree, which grows in Georgia is not the type that fosters the silkworm. Silkworms prefer the white, Asian mulberry (Morus alba), while ours is the purple, American species (Morus rubra). And though our mulberry does not create wealth from silk, it does provide the wealth of health.
I have a strong love for mulberries. This was one of the first plants I wildcrafted. At the time I didn’t consider it wildcrafting, as I didn’t even know the term, all I knew was that when spring hit and the berries ripened my father would take me out to gather and enjoy this delicious, purple fruit.
The mulberry is one of the most neglected and misunderstood plants in our area. Yes, it stains the streets and anything in the path of the falling berry, causing folks to complain about that “weedy mulberry tree” but the berry is full of antioxidant power, which helps mitigate damage from free radicals. The deep blue, purple, and red pigment of the berries is due to the presence of an antioxidant known as anthocyanin, which has been shown to protect against cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer.
Now any time we harvest plants outside of our own garden, there are a few important issues to consider. First, is the area we gather from clean. Second, we should be aware of the scarcity or abundance of this particular species we seek. We must only gather what is plentiful, to not overharvest a plant population already under pressure. Lucky for us mulberry lovers, this tree grows quite prolifically so this is not a concern. And finally, proper identification of the plant we are looking for. To find mulberries in your neighborhood, simply search for a purple squishy mess on the ground, look up and chances are you have found your tree. There are of course other unique characteristics of the mulberry we use for identification, and for more information on that, you can click here for additional photos and tips.
There are endless ways to enjoy the flavor and health benefits of mulberries. If you wish to preserve them for consumption outside of when they are in season you can dehydrate or freeze them. My favorite mulberry preparation is to make a syrup. It’s really quite simple to prepare. Syrups are liquids (such as tea or juice) preserved with honey or sugar. The instructions I give here are for a sugar syrup, as using honey will darken the gorgeous color. But please note that you may certainly replace the sugar with honey for a slightly less brilliantly colored but admittedly healthier syrup.
First, wash the berries well, separating out any bugs, stems, or other unwanted tagalongs and put in a stainless steel pot over a low flame. Add a touch of water to avoid sticking and burning. Gently warm and simmer until berries soften. Strain through a colander or squeeze through a press cloth to remove the pulp and seeds. Measure and then place the strained juice back on the stove. You will add two cups of sugar to each cup of juice. Stir over a low flame until all the sugar dissolves. Allow it to cool and then bottle. Enjoy drizzled over foods or blended with some sparkling water for a lovely spritzer. I like to add just a touch of cinnamon for a real treat.