In the June issue of Heartland Outdoors Magazine, you can’t read it on line, it’s only in the print version, Gretchen Steele of Walkin’ With the Wild Woman wrote an article on mulberries.
In the article, Gretchen suggests that an efficient way to gather mulberries is to spread a tarp under the tree and shake the branches, letting the ripe berries fall to the tarp.
It reminded me that I had tried that four years ago with my daughters, along with some black raspberry picking, and I did a little write up about it back then.
The end result wasn’t quite that simple…
By the time we were done, my arms from my finger tips to my shoulders were tingling from the pain. It’s that kind of pain you get from sun burn. It doesn’t hurt in any one particular spot, it just hurts the same all over.
Dozens of blood oozing scratch marks created random hatched patterns up my arms. I could see a blurred drop of coagulated blood on the tip of my nose. My left eye was gushing tears that wouldn’t stop after the edge of a long leaf slashed across my eyeball, luckily missing my cornea. My back was tight and aching after leaning over for 3 hours.
Throw in mosquitoes, spiders of all kinds, grass hoppers, bees, wasps, hornets, giant horse flies and a wide variety of bugs that went unidentified. All were either biting us or annoying us, with my 13 year old daughter Leah faring the worse. She was bit by a big horse fly that left a welt the size of a half dollar on her shoulder.
And then there was the constant refrain…is that poison ivy?
After a while, all the green of the plants blur together and it got difficult to identify any one particular type. I seem to be immune to the rash inducing plant, but Leah seems to break out when she just looks at it. My 18 year old daughter Nina simply gave up. “If I get poison ivy, I guess I’ll just have to deal with it,” she said. The other agreed and they both dove in as well as they could.
It was the end of June, the first of the black raspberries were becoming ripe and this was the price you had to pay if you wanted to stock up on a few…quarts. They grow in thorny thickets, sometimes almost impenetrable. If you want black raspberries you have no choice but to dive in and get them. Some are quite easy to get to, but if you want quantity, you have to wade into the sometimes armpit deep thicket and plunge your arms in to reach the dark purple berries hidden at the bottom of the plant.
On Saturday, we had scouted the trails at Silver Springs State Park. We knew where the luscious berries grew, in those semi shady damp areas that make the bug infestations worse. We had seen them and tasted them the year before and just wanted to make sure that they were ready for picking. The berries were not only found in the familiar spots, we wandered far down a trail that paralleled the Fox River and found many more. Though we spotted quite a few to fill our bowls, there were far more that wouldn’t be ripe for another week at least. Along that trail we also found mulberry trees and decided to come back on Sunday to get as many berries of each type that we could. My wife promised a pie or two of mulberries and black raspberries mixed together, but that didn’t matter to the girls. As long as there was a constant supply of vanilla ice cream to dump berries on, they would be content.
You would think by now, with all the fishing and hiking I’ve put them through over the years, you would think by now that my daughters would know what it means when I tell them, dress for hiking and exploring.
So Sunday morning, dressed in tank tops, shorts and flip flops, my daughters gathered up the plastic bowls and drop cloths and we headed out. Our first stop and approach to the black raspberries resulted in ow, ow, ow, but remarkably no real complaining. They did have enough sense to not go into the brush too deep and would follow the tamped down path created by me, who had enough sense to wear shoes and pants. The refrain of “dad, you’re missing some,” followed behind me. They never did catch on to the fact that the ones I missed were buried deep into the tangles.
Had to give them a little pain with their pleasure.
After filling a couple of containers, washing off our purple stained hands in the nearby lake, and taking a well needed lemonade break, we headed to the other section where more black raspberries and the mulberries were to be found. There weren’t quite as many ripe black raspberries for the picking, so we spread the drop cloth out beneath a mulberry tree and began shaking the limbs. Within a couple of minutes the drop cloth was covered with a fair amount of berries. We picked up the ends of the drop cloth and funneled the berries into a quart container. The container was filled to overflowing. The girls were pleased at how easy this was going to be.
We gathered around our overstuffed container, anticipating staring at large ripe mulberries.
“They’re kind of small and mushy looking,” Nina pointed out.
We kept staring. The mound of berries began moving as bugs began writhing out from under the weight of all that purple pleasure. Leaf bugs, baby grass hoppers, spiders and a number of “what the heck is that?” bugs.
“I don’t care how Di cooks these,” Nina said with a tone of disgust in her voice, “I’m not going to eat it.”
We each went to a separate tree and began picking by hand. The tree I chose had a deer path leading to it and the tall grass all around the tree was matted down by the bedding deer. Why not sleep where your food is, I guess. Made my job much easier since the ripest berries fall off the tree if you so much as breathe on them. Picking them up off the ground became easier than constantly having my hands raised over my head.
At Nina’s tree, she announced that she was going back to shaking the limbs and sorting out the fallen fruit. This worked well and she quickly filled another container. The picking at Leah’s tree was oddly quiet. Then it started. Every couple of minutes Nina would yell, “Leah, quit eating everything.”
“I’m not,” would always be the answer. But even from a distance you could see the purple stained lips and teeth that said otherwise.
Leah was the first to call it quits. She claimed that no mater how fast she ran and no matter how much she waved her arms, the bugs were chasing and stalking her. By then we had filled a half dozen containers of the deep purple berries and we were sure there were more than enough for whatever concoction Di came up with. We went home to clean wounds and berries.
Later that day, we had a few minutes to kill before I had to take them home. We stopped at another one of our favorite spots, the Hoover Forest Preserve in Kendall County. We wanted to quickly drive the gravel road and check the edges of the woods for signs of black raspberries. The berries were everywhere. In a couple of weeks the girls would be back and they insisted on coming here for more picking. There were far more of the berries here than at Silver Springs State Park and we seem to always have this almost square mile forest preserve to ourselves. Of course I had to pull the car over so we could all jump out, pick and taste test a handful of berries before heading home.
Later that week I delivered to my girls a few pieces of the cobbler that Di had decided to make out of the mix of black raspberries and mulberries. A little strawberry Jello mix was added to the mess in order to add another level of flavor and I thought this was easily the best cobbler Di had made so far.
The girls of course had to taste test the cobbler right then and there, barely letting me get my foot out the car door before they were popping open the lid on the container and digging into the purple mess with their fingers.
“OH MY GOD! This is sooo good!!” was the critique as they voraciously sucked the remnants from each finger.
They quickly rattled off plans for their next visit…how many containers would be collected, what practical clothing they would be bringing and how Di should cook up the next concoction. And the final request, “can we have some on vanilla ice cream?”
If they were willing to put themselves through the pain of picking them, they could have them any way they wanted.