Forbidden Fruit

It’s a frequent sight right now in Southern Ontario: trees carrying loads of fruit that look like elongated blackberries. The ground underneath is littered with crushed fruit and stained a deep purple.

When I was a kid I was walking home from school one day with some friends. There was a massive tree of this sort on the route, and a large branch had broken off and fallen to the ground. It was covered in fruit. We didn’t know what it was, but we feasted on it like kings.

I arrived home with face and hands stained purple, and my parents immediately demanded to know what I had been eating. My explanation – “berries off a tree” – alarmed them, and they gave me a stern lecture about how we could have been poisoned.

Even now, when I stop for a moment to grab a bunch, I get odd looks from people who seem to be wondering if I have a death wish as I gobble the fruit no one else seems to want. But mulberries are delicious, and until our culture started mistrusting any food not found in grocery stores, people ate them all the time.

MulberryBig, black and juicy: just the way I like ’em

If people grew big stands of raspberries right next to city sidewalks, I imagine the ripe fruit would not last long as passers-by furtively helped themselves. But mulberry trees by the side of the road – even those whose branches dip low enough for easy harvesting – go untouched.

I can only assume this is because people don’t know what they are, because it’s certainly not due to their taste, which is like a rich, sweet blackberry. You owe it to yourself to try them if you haven’t before!

I wonder just how much free food grows right under our noses. Hamilton has a tree-planting program and I requested a serviceberry for it’s gorgeous spring-time flowers. A friend noticed it and pointed out that its berries are edible. As it turns out, not just edible, but delicious!

ServiceberriesA favourite of robins, serviceberries taste the way they look: like red blueberries

The origins of its name are interesting:

The name serviceberry is derived from the practice of isolated mountain communities in early America to postpone funeral services for those who died in the winter until the spring when the ground was no longer frozen. The flowers of the tree, the first to bloom in the spring, were gathered for church services.

Both of these trees are in season right now, so go eat some berries!

[tags]nutrition, cooking, botany[/tags]

48 Responses to “Forbidden Fruit”

  1. As a fellow downtown Hamiltonian, I haven’t seen too many of these. My wife and I are growing raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries in our garden to compensate. If you know where I can find some mulberries and serviceberries, do tell. I loved those things when I was a kid, too. :)

  2. Ade:

    There’s a couple of mulberry trees on the trail that goes through the golf course on the way up the escarpment (the one that starts at the top of Dundurn).

    There’s also a huge one somewhere around Hess & Bold, I’ll update that location next time I’m near there.

    They’re really quite common so if you keep an eye out they should be easy to find. Just look at the sidewalks.

    I’ve also noticed that there are a lot of purple bird droppings around, I’m pretty sure this is as a result of eating mulberries.

    The only service berry I’m aware of in the city is in my front yard. Actually, that’s not true, Ryan from Raise the Hammer has one in his front yard apparently, but I don’t know where that is.

  3. Ade:

    Update: there is a grove of serviceberry trees that are just covered in fruit right now at the large apartment building at the corner of Hess and Jackson streets. They are short (only 15 feet high) with silver bark that has black marks on it.

  4. Jack:

    My childhood was spent in Africa where I enjoyed lot’s of Mulberry (among many other berries I found and tried) so it was just for nostalgia’s sake and also missing the taste that I just started looking up mulberries and if they could be grown here in Ontario, and I stumbled across your old page here, not sure if you even look here now, but thought I would share. Now I should probably make a drive over to Hamilton and see if I can find me some of these Mulberry trees :)

  5. John:

    There is a mulberry tree just north of Towson University on the east side of Charles St..

  6. Pervez Khan:

    Thanks for the post. Now I know what I am eating.Service berries are delicious.

  7. Heather:

    Just be careful allowing children to eat these. My daughter had a handful when I was home in Nova Scotia – we call them “Sugarberries” and she was in hives until the seeds came out. It wasnt nice. Otherwise – dig in. Sooooo good!!

  8. Chris:

    The “Pitkin Nursery” in Idaho has excellent quality stock of Service Berry seedlings and other stuff too. I have 5 of them planted in my yard and they are doing awsome. Another good berry to try that is overlooked is called “Josta Berry”, it is a cross between a Black Current and a Goose Berry. I have Red and Black Current berries and Goose berries growing and they are great. I also have a Mulberry tree that I can’t wait for it to sprout fruit.

  9. Chris:

    Try Huckle Berries too! They are like the Service Berries / Blue Berries :). They are hard to domesticate though, they spread by Rhiozomes(?) mostly. Service Berries seem to do well in some of the “crappiest” soil to… I’ll bet they just explode in really good soil.