Gone Away ~ The journal of Clive Allen in America

A Mulberry Childhood

(This is one of a series of articles I wrote dealing with memories of an African childhood. To read the first of these, click here)

I had a mulberry childhood. By this I mean that, growing up in Africa, I had no experience of the blackberries that are everywhere in the temperate climate of Northern Europe and America. The berry that filled that gap for me was the mulberry.

They are superficially similar. Both berries are composed of juicy, dark purple globes clustered around a central core. The blackberry tends to be round whereas the mulberry is larger and more elongated into an oval but they could be mistaken for each other, since blackberries vary greatly in size and shape. There the resemblance ends, however.

The mulberry grows on a tree rather than the rambling, thorny and unbiquitous bush that is the blackberry, the ferocious weed that is known so appropriately as a bramble when it is not bearing fruit. And the mulberry tree is large, quite capable of overtopping the houses around which it is often planted in Africa.

The leaves, so famously the chosen diet of the silkworm (which led to every child in Africa spending at least some time in raising the caterpillars to golden cocoons with the vague hope of spinning silk), are a bright, light green in color, about the size of your palm and teardrop-shaped with a serrated edge.

Even when not bearing fruit, the tree is a noble sight, the shade it offers a welcome respite from the African sun. Although not as common as the bramble is in Europe, mulberry trees are plentiful enough, their charms and hardiness making them an obvious choice for planting.

For the small child, however, they present a problem. When mature, the tree offers no branches within reach to allow for easy climbing. The fruit hangs in profusion upon the branches but, if you wait for them to fall, the berries very quickly become squashed dark stains upon the ground. The temptation of that sweet-tasting fruit (so much better than the rather tart blackberry that serves the same purpose in the north) is such that, sooner or later, a solution will be found.

I was fortunate in that the backyard of my childhood had a full grown mulberry tree behind some outhouses. It spread its branches just at the height of the flat roof of these outhouses so that, with determination, I could climb up to the roof, there to sit and pick mulberries at my leisure.

And here we come to another difference between the two berries. Mulberry juice stains. It stains at the slightest opportunity, spreading its purple blotches over clothes, skin and tongue, so that the evidence of a mulberry foray is immediately and obviously evident. The blackberry cannot compete with that dark signature.

It is not that I was forbidden these fruits or scolded for the marks upon my clothes. I am amazed now to recall how much freedom I was allowed in those days; outside the house I was without restraint and could go where and do whatever I pleased. Somehow I survived the experience.

To come to England and participate every autumn in the tradition of blackberry-picking brought reminders of those mulberry days but it was not quite the same. Few blackberries were eaten right there and then; they were too sour to encourage overindulgence and were generally destined to make preserves for the winter. Mulberries were too tasty to make it as far as the preserve jar!

So I missed the mulberries of my youth and blackberries were a poor substitute. England had a surprise in store for me, however.

Just south of Coventry there is an old stately home known as Stoneleigh Abbey. The grounds were open to the public and the family often used to visit in summer to stroll around and enjoy the well-tended gardens. One day we came across a tree that bore dark, berry-like fruit and we began to wonder what it could be. It looked like a mulberry but surely they did not grow so far north? There was only one way to find out.

Surreptitiously we picked as much of the fruit as we could reach, then secreted our haul amongst ourselves and left quickly. Back at home we examined our ill-gotten gains. Certainly they looked like mulberries, a little larger than we were used to but exactly the right shape and color. We tried them.

They were mulberries alright but so different from what we expected. They were full of juice yet insipid in taste; somehow having lost their strength in growing so large. I surmised that the abundance of water in England was the cause, that our African mulberries had been more sparing in their production of juice and so concentrated the flavor.

It was a disappointment after the excitement of our discovery but, even so, it was good to know that the mulberry tree can survive the English winter. That lone tree was like an old friend whose presence in a corner of England was somehow comforting. We always visited it when at Stoneleigh but never again did we time it right to be there in its fruiting season. If you happen to be at the Abbey for some reason, keep an eye out for a tall, leafy tree with dark berries amongst its foliage...

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(to read the next of the African Memories articles, click here)


I know how it is with trees. They become special simply by virtue of being on the scene at the right time... Davidia involucrata does it for me (the Dove Tree). I have memories of seeing one in full 'flower'.... They (trees) keep a place in everyones heart, or at least, they Should do. The value of a single specimen to a Higher Authority is not hard to guess... Just had a thought about the protection that society gives to animals - maybe we (society) should extend those rights to trees as well. Time to go and hug a tree now.... a Morus rubra (red mulberry) would be appropriate but I don't have one to hand; Have to make do with a Silver Birch. afc
Date Added: 18/12/2006

Gone Away
Yes, certain trees become very special when they are rooted in our memories. I think it was a black mulberry that I knew so well back then. But I must admit that I've never seen the point in hugging trees - they are so unresponsive to that kind of thing... ;)
Date Added: 18/12/2006

Someday I am going to write about my branch..I've said that four times online, so I better do it. Glad you found your tree though they never replace the ones we grow up with. I hope you can at least get your face all purple again.
Date Added: 18/12/2006

Gone Away
Those were the days, Janus!
Date Added: 19/12/2006

The funny thing is we had a mulberry tree very close to home. In the grounds of the old house behind us in Cov was an old gnarled and bent mulberry tree. Once I'd learnt to identify it I stuffed my face every autumn. It's one of my favourite fruits now.

I'm still sad that the developers of the old house didn't know what they had and chopped it down.
Date Added: 19/12/2006

Gone Away
You never told me that, Mad! Maybe England is full of secret mulberry trees...
Date Added: 19/12/2006

I recall the Mulberry tree behind your house. There was also one that backed onto the garden of my house in Bristol, though this one was still quite young. Maybe its those African swallows crapping out seeds as they migrate. There is also the childs nursery rhyme 'Here we go round the Mulberry Bush' (as opposed to the unfamous adults nursery rhyme 'Here we go postal on Mulberry Avenue') Which alludes to a certain level of fame for the Mulberry. I'm not sure where the rhyme originated but maybe it will hold some key to the great Mulberry Mystery
Date Added: 20/12/2006

Well spin my nipple nuts and call me George!
Mulberry Bush
Date Added: 20/12/2006

Gone Away
Good point, Keef, it's strange that there is an English nursery rhyme celebrating the mulberry (I'll overlook that fact that they got wrong in calling it a bush) when the tree seems to be completely unknown among the Brits today. I believe it originates in China so I suppose I shouldn't have been so surprised to see it in England - it gets pretty cold in China in wintertime too.
Date Added: 20/12/2006

Gone Away
Wakefield Prison, hey? That's even further north, in Yorkshire! Well, I live and learn...

Thanks, George. :D
Date Added: 20/12/2006

We have mulberry trees here in PA. They are smaller (branches are about 4 feet off the ground), but the berries are very juicy and sweet. We have one in our backyard that my 2 kids like to climb and sit among the branches as they feast. Right now they are ripening and my kids come in every day with stained faces, hands, feet and clothes!
Date Added: 09/06/2008

I sit here eating Blackberry's (East Coast, USA) which in no way stirs memories from my youth when we used to pick Mulberry's from a huge tree in the backyard of my music and art teachers', huge rambling, double storey house in Kensington, Johannesburg. We always would arrive much earlier for our lessons in the summer hoping to get the chance to play outside with the dogs and eat stuff our mouths with the unique tasting berries....and yes, also to get leaves for our silkworms. Much enjoyed reading all the postings. Thanks!
Date Added: 31/07/2008

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