As a child, I recited the action song ‘Here we go ’round the mulberry bush’ without an inkling that we were singing about a plant we knew as ‘amboram’, the small red berries which appeared on a thorn-less bush almost as soon as the ‘boram’ or the sweet-sour Indian jujube, began to disappear from the trees in the neighbourhood. I was not any wiser when I went to the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bengaluru and handled mulberry leaves as feed for the caterpillars of silkworms. The popular Kanva-2 variety of mulberry was grown exclusively for its leaves in sericulture or silk production and never allowed to bear fruits. In those days of reference cards and hard-bound volumes of research paper abstracts, finding a coloured photograph was as rare as finding a parakeet near a fish market where crows abound. It was a trip to the then Eastern Uttar Pradesh (now Uttarakhand) that brought enlightenment. They referred to the amboram they ate as ‘mulberry’. In those days, computers and the internet were matters of science fiction – now, all that information is just a Google search away.
The mulberry plant is botanically known as Morus alba, though most of the plants bear red berries that turn almost black as they ripen. White mulberries are more recent. This is the time of the year when one gets the most mulberries in Goa, especially if one has cared to irrigate the plants in December. The berries appear like miniature hairy caterpillars that later turn milky white, light green, pink, scarlet and finally a deep red that borders on black. The darkest colour is the sweetest but folks who love tangy fruits like ‘ambear-piko’ mankurad mango, prefer their mulberries when they are between scarlet and maroon in colour. Tastes differ.
On fully ripening, mulberries contain eight to nine per cent sugar and about 88 per cent water. The anthocyanin pigment is an antioxidant. It will also give a blood-red colour to your hands as well as to the syrup, crush, squash or wine made from mulberries. Jam and preserves made from mulberries turn a dark red colour.
Mulberry twigs root easily and, hence, stem cuttings are most often used to propagate this plant. Seedlings can be raised from its tiny seeds and they will grow into trees about ten-metres tall and spread like a seedling mango tree. There are some tall trees of mulberry at the Chimbel farm from two failed projects to promote sericulture, one before liberation and the other in 1982 when one Dr Chandrashekar was brought on deputation from the Central Sericulture Board, Mysore, by the Directorate of Agriculture. I was then working for a private company and sourced jute cloth for the project.
The mulberry plant is deciduous and sheds leaves in autumn. It can easily be pruned and trained into a bower or pergola as I did while I worked at the Dempo’s Mahamaya Farm in Sal, Bicholim. My wife, Martha, has made jams, preserves and syrup out of mulberries and won prizes at the Konkan Fruit Fest, where entries are allotted code numbers and the judges are not biased. The mulberries attract a range of birds and the mulberry bushes at home are now almost exclusively dedicated to them. Our little granddaughter, Abigail loves to watch the birds and eat a few mulberries when she comes over.