The Mulberry Tree

Our very first home was in Hintonburg, Ottawa.  In early 1980, not married, just a young couple, madly in love and looking for a place to spend the rest of our lives, we bought the smallest house on the street.   It is the home we got engaged in, and the home we went back to after our honeymoon.  I graduated from Nursing when we lived there, and we had many festive celebrations there.  My talented husband renovated each nook and cranny.  He redid the plumbing, electrical, landscaping, roofing, we knocked down walls, he put in a new kitchen and we ate Thanksgiving dinner with cardboard covering the hole where our patio door would someday be.   We paved our gravel driveway, updated the one square foot bathroom and welcomed our first dog there.  Bijou, a little black French poodle, with a white goatee.

There were so many great things about living in “Mechanicsville”.   I could cycle to work on Rochester, the Parkdale market was close with fresh corn, basil and Christmas trees. We had countless family and friends nearby and a large deck in a sweet backyard. One year we roasted a small pig on a spit and had a swinging singles meet and greet.  Our neighbor met my dear friend Deb and she, and Jim have been married for 30 years now.  The river parkway was just down the street, and on gruesome winter nights, we put on our snowmobile suits and would walk around looking for cars to push out of snowbanks.  We did good deeds there.

Our church was up the street, a cinema a block away, life was rich.

We had a sweet couple haunt; a wee Japanese hole in the wall on Holland and Wellington and they seemed to love us there.  Every time we went for dinner the owner would gift us with a small glass of plumb liqueur at the end of the evening.   Such sweet young splendid memories.

My favorite thing about our home was the mulberry tree in the front yard.

Bijou under the tree

It filled the whole yard, except for our small walkway up to the front door.  When we bought the house, the realtor had no idea what kind of a tree it was.  “I don’t know, a maple?”, he responded when we asked him.   In November, it had no leaves, and looked rather spindly.

July 1 1980, our yard, driveway and sidewalk were full of dark purple, fully hydrated bursting, dripping, berries.  The white sidewalk was purple, our car, Bijou’s goatee, the bottom of our feet, and consequently our carpets became aubergine purple.  Clearly, that is not a maple tree, we thought.   A bit of research later and we discovered that we were the owners of a red mulberry tree.

We were delighted.  A tree that produced fruit, year after year, despite the economic downturn of the eighties, we would have fruit.  They were plump, sweet, super juicy and completely a novelty for both of us, who had very little arborist or pie experience. 

The tree introduced me to people.  Children in the neighborhood showed up in droves to pick the berries.  A quick rule was made, one jar for you and one for me.  Soon the tree held up to 5 kids at a time.  The jars added up and I had to find recipes.

The parents of the berry pickers showed up and each one of them got a jar of jam at the end of the season.  The parents dropped by to thank me for keeping their children occupied and of course loved the berries too.  We would stand and chat and snack on the low hanging fruit, laughing with purple tongues quenched and wagging on a hot summer’s night.

One day a couple with clipboards were standing on our driveway inspecting the tree. They were from a tree museum in southern Ontario.  We were informed that our tree was rare and special and that it was the most northern of its species, ( a Morus Rubrus), they had ever witnessed.

The tree introduced us to new gift ideas.  A bucket with one cup of mulberries and 6 cups of water could dye a t-shirt purple, in an overnight soak.  The berries made great wine, pie, muffins, jam, and liqueur. 

We could stand under the tree each morning with our coffee, pick them fresh and eat them daily for about two straight weeks.  Berry Bliss.

The birds it attracted were varied and ravenous.  Over the years, with my tree sporting its temptations, we identified and marvelled at over 15 species of birds, gobbling them down and still, there were leftover berries for the children and us, and enough to stain the sidewalk again, each summer.

The tree brought us joy and delight.  My husband, who was not always as pleased as the berries littered the ground and stained his beloved car; got into the spirit when he concocted a tarp under the tree to capture the berries and funnel them into a bucket.  It was a brilliant design, until one day a large wind came up and swirled under the tarp blowing and blasting the collection, up and up into the air dispersing them like fireworks splattering mulberries across the neighborhood, on walls and windows, cars and swing sets.  We laughed, and then cursed the loss of so many berries.

The mulberry tree is amazing.  It has two sets of leaves. One is a cordiform (almost heart shaped) and the other leaf is referred to as lobed.  There are non-fruiting varieties (as I found out).  This is usually a tree without a mate that waits dormant, it is considered a dioecious tree, which requires another plant of the opposite gender around to reproduce. Others are monoecious in which their sexual system has separate male and female cones, or flowers present on the same plant.  Patience is required if you buy a tree with no berries, as you could wait a lifetime for a berry.  I suggest only buying one where the berries are visible.  Purchase it the last week of June to the first two weeks of July and you will know.  Berries are a Canada Day event!

These trees are banned in Texas where they are seen as invasive, but up north, here, they are cherished, at least on my properties. 

Mulberry leaves are the primary food source of the silkworm and mulberry silk is the most valued of all silks, worldwide. Silkworms are attracted to mulberry leaves, and a jasmine-scented chemical is emitted by the leaf which is received by a highly tuned olfactory receptor in the silkworms’ antennae.  A match made in heaven. 

The Giant Tiger in Wakefield had 2 mulberries outside in their early days, the weeping ornamental type and they were completely devoured by silkworms.  I coveted them each time I bought socks and undies there.  And then they were gone.

The time came when we had to move away, longing for lakefront property, and the country beckoned us.  It was very sad to be leaving our little marital home and I knew we would miss the tree.

My father, (master gardener and original tree hugger), sympathized with me.   He taught me how to make a tree baby.  Shoots coming out of the ground could be slightly damaged in the middle section of the branch, dusted with root stimulator and bent and placed back in the ground and then covered with soil.  Roots would grow from the fork, the damaged portion and after a couple of weeks, the shoot could be cut from the mother tree., planted and then start a whole new tree, (theoretically).

Dad and I made two babies this way, much to my delight.  The first one we gave to my best friend on her wedding day.  It had grown and was in a pot about 4 feet high.  I was so very proud of it.  We planted it for her in her backyard on Queen street.  A few years later she moved, and we dug it up and moved it to her permanent home in Westboro.  It thrived.  So much so, the litter of the berries disrupted their backyard and attracted loud crows, and, in the end, it was a nuisance tree and she chopped it down.  Taken aback and somehow hurt, yet I have since learned that not everyone shares the same passion, and not all gifts are appreciated as much by the receiver as the giver.  

The second one we took to our new home in the Gatineau hills in Morrison Heights.  It grew with gusto and became over 20 feet high and at least 15 feet around.  When we moved from that home the new owners loved it too and tended to it well.

The “baby” tree far left.

As the new owners and I became good friends, I asked if I could make a baby from their baby, to plant in our new home and destination in Masham.   They were all too cooperative.   This attempt went on for four years, using technique my dad taught me, as well as a “soft wood cutting” with a baggie and root stimulator.  After ten trials, no tree was the result. What disappointment.

A purchased ornamental Mulberry tree from Walmart promptly died.

Another tree purchased from Artistic Home Design, died.

Nursery after nursery, the trees were sought and planted, and then died.

One Mulberry stick from Ritchie Feed and Seed took root, it grew for 10 years. It was 10 feet tall, before I realized it had only one type of leaf and was a non-fruiting variety and although well treated and tended to patiently, it bore no fruit.

I regretted moving from the city, I mourned the loss of my Mulberry tree yet, undaunted, kept trying.

My next attempt in 2010 was to purchase a Russian Alba mulberry – the kind found in my sister’s neighborhood in little Portugal, Toronto. 

Morus Alba

The Alba variety is healthy ,sturdy, withstands a colder zone, and bears white fruit.  The berries are big and slightly drier than the purple, but the flavor is still decidedly mulberry.  It was planted carefully in a south facing spot, and patiently tended to, each spring the leaves were inspected, noting it had two distinct types – a fruiter for sure.  Like all gardeners, patience is a virtue.  Ten years passed again, and this past summer July 2021, while tilling the soil near the tree, I looked up and saw 2 distinctly purple berries.  I gasped, put down my rake and reached for them.

 There they were.

 I placed one in the palm of my hand and left the other one dangling.   I could scarcely believe it.  “You are supposed to be white”, I said to the berry in my hand.  I cried and danced  and nobody was home to celebrate with.  When my husband came home, I took his hand and walked him to the tree in our southeast spot and pointed up and said “look”.   He knew. He knew before he saw the lone dangling berry, what all the excitement was about, and he shared in it . “Isn’t that great!  he exclaimed and hugged me.

It had not produced fruit as it was standing in too much shade.   Our property has grown, and the surrounding trees have created a shady canopy.  A a local gentleman was hired to take down some trees and now the Russian Alba ( actually a Rubrus) is standing in the sun.  He was told“I do not care if one of the trees hits the house, just do not let it fall on my Mulberry tree.  

The tree fuels my soul with hope.  The berries give me joy and purpose.  The faithful waiting will finally pay off.  It’s difficult to express in words how much this tree means to me.  I hope to be buried beneath it.   Someday, all the wee bits of my decomposed nutrients will feed the tree and as the roots suck up the very essence of me, I will slither inside the sap and burst forth on a branch and might just come back as a Mulberry!  This is not a gruesome thought but a joyful one.  Life will go on and on.  Imagine the journey !   A bird eats a berry and then poops me out and perhaps I could land in a crop of wild milkweed.  A monarch butterfly might feed on the milkweed and then off to Mexico.  The travels will be endless, and everlasting.

“If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you. Luke 17 v 6

We all need something to look forward to, and for us it is July 1 2022. 

Jennifer Currie