Mulberries come in an array of hues: black, white, pink, purple; some enticingly sweet, others astringent and healing. As Berrin Torolsan can testify, having grown up with them in her Istanbul garden, all are adored – by man, mallard and pine marten alike. Here she traces the history of this lucious fruit
In the old days “gathering mulberries used to be an event, a celebration,” remembers the writer Münevver Ayaşlı in her 1975 book Dersaadet (City of Felicity), describing Istanbul life at the beginning of the last century. She goes on: “The hygiene-conscious ladies of the day never bought mulberries from the vendor, but they were nevertheless passionate about mulberries.” So in the back garden of every yalı or köşk would be at least one mulberry tree for the household to enjoy. Berries heaped on vendors’ trays were sold to foreigners and children.
The harvest was cause for great excitement. Out came clean linen kept specially for the purpose. Four people, each holding a corner of a sheet, waited under the tree to catch the fruit, while a fifth climbed up and shook the branches. The ripe berries fell with a sound like large raindrops or hail, collecting in the middle of the sheet. “The joy was something to behold,” writes Ayaşlı. Not only youngsters but grown-ups – distant elderly relatives, pious ladies from the far ends of the city – would come to join in the merriment of this early summer rite.
A contemporary of Ayaşlı’s, İffet Evin, describes in her memoir, Eski Boğaziçi İnsanları (People of the Old Bosphorus), how the branches were tapped gently with a rod, and the mulberries collected would be piled on platters to be distributed to neighbours by the cook.
Charles White was a journalist writing half a century earlier. In Three Years in Constantinople, he noted that both red and white “dood” (mulberry – dut in Turkish, borrowed from the Persian tut) were often used in sherbets. The white, Morus alba, and the black, Morus nigra, are both still widely grown, fruiting in abundance in June and July. Although they belong to the same genus, they differ both in character and history.
The black mulberry, hardier and more resilient, seems to have entered our world from its presumed habitat on the shores of the Caspian much earlier than its white sibling. The intriguing deep colour and the acidity that gives it its curative powers fascinated the Romans and possibly the Greeks before them, and it became part of the culinary and medicinal repertoire. In the first century ad, Pliny the Elder observes in Historia Naturalis that the fruit turn from white to red to black as it ripens and that its juice stains like wine. Excavations at Pompeii reveal frescoes of fruiting mulberries, including a young tree in a tub, picked at by two thrushes.
The white mulberry, on the other hand, with its sweet, delicate fruit, remained unknown to the West for a long time – as did the precious, and well-kept, secret of its key role in the production of silk. The Romans, addicted to what Pliny the Elder refers to as “the luxurious silken clothes that smart Roman ladies called bombycina”, had no idea that this costly fabric had any connection whatsoever with the mulberry tree.
Silk is woven from a fine thread obtained from the cocoons, or pupae, of a blind, flightless moth, Bombyx mori. It was discovered in China – though when and how is lost in the depths of history. The Chinese kept the secret of sericulture from the West for a very long time; silk was thought to come from the fibres of a mysterious plant. Trade in the monopoly flourished and everyone profited, not only the Chinese manufacturers, but merchants and retailers along the trade routes.
Salaries and taxes were paid in woven silk worth its weight in gold, and Turkic nomads on the steppes even exchanged horses for silk. Scythians long acted as middlemen between East and West – Chinese silk is found in their tombs; remains from Pazyryk in the Golden Mountains of the Altai date from the fifth to third centuries bc. Steppe warriors wore silk under their golden armour, likewise the Romans: the strong fibres formed a protective membrane around any weapon penetrating the skin, and silk’s antibacterial properties kept infection at bay.
After countless foiled attempts to smuggle silkworm cocoons out of China, the secret was revealed at last: silk is made by a moth that requires the foliage of the white mulberry tree in which to lay its eggs. Larvae from the hatching eggs feed on the leaves as they spin their cocoons.
Sogdian traders are thought to have presented an emperor with the first saplings of this wonder-tree seen in Byzantium. The silk industry took off in Constantinople, which remained a major centre for silk until the Fourth Crusade sacked the city in 1204. Sericulture and trade in cocoons, yarns and fabrics developed as a home industry, as it had in China. Imperial workshops also produced silks of exquisite quality and colour for the court. For centuries to come, acres of mulberry plantations flourished across Anatolia, the Balkans and the Mediterranean, and the white mulberry became part of the European flora.
Both white and black mulberries are self-fertile, hardy and fairly adaptable. Many varieties developed over time with human and natural selection. Morus tatarica, for example, has creamy red berries capable of surviving high winds – it grows on the southern steppes of the Volga and the coast of the Sea of Azov. Others are M. alba mongolica, byzantina, constantinopolitana, and cretica, to mention just a few.
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