In Washington, mulberry trees offer many immigrants a taste of home

Mulberry trees are popular with the Washington area's immigrant population, although the fruit has never really caught on in the United States.
By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 2010; 9:03 PM

The rush-hour rainstorm didn't faze Sara Shokravi as she parked in Rosslyn, ducked into a Starbucks restroom to change out of her work clothes and marched down to a narrow offramp that feeds motorists onto the Key Bridge. Ignoring the cars that splashed water onto the grass, Shokravi, a 27-year-old consultant, pulled out a plastic bag, stopped at a tree laden with red and black berries, and started picking.

It would not have been a strange sight in her native Iran, where at this time of year entire families can be seen at laying out bedsheets and shaking trees to collect the berries, which they eat fresh, dried or blended into juice. Here, she acknowledged, her foraging prompts "funny looks. This is D.C. -- people aren't going to go out of their way to get something if it's not in a store."

They don't know what they're missing, say mulberry fans, most of whom are immigrants. Just the sight of fruit-laden trees can conjure up sweet memories for people who grew up in the Middle East, Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Far East.

Mir Farid Hashimi, 39, a native of Afghanistan who lives in Woodbridge, said his family makes a day of picking the berries in Maryland parks.

"The kids like it, especially my two daughters," he said. "They climb up and hit the tree." It connects them to their parents' homeland, where the area north of Kabul is drenched with mulberries about this time of year. Kids in the streets sell them from trays, and families picnic under the trees. Here, when a mulberry hit his tongue, "Mmm," he said, "I think right now I'm in Kabul."

Yet despite its firm place in nursery rhymes (remember where the monkey chased the weasel?), the fruit of the mulberry bush, or tree, has never caught on in the United States. One reason may be that its thin skin makes it hard to transport commercially: The berries taste best immediately after picking. The white ones are light and subtle, almost perky, but the black ones, the ones that stain fingers and lips, are luscious and decadent and dissolve on the tongue in a sweet, dusky swirl.

Most people in the Washington area don't know that. Hold a berry out to Adam Schwartz, 31, who was carrying his clubs across the parking lot at the golf course in East Potomac Park. There, both the purple-black and the white varieties hang over cars. "I've never seen it before," he said, backing away.

Would he like to try one? He shook his head.

But he changed his mind when a reporter gulped one down. "Okay, I'll eat it," he said, bravely. "I trust you."

The verdict? "It was good. It tastes like not as bitter or as tart as a blackberry."

Trees have a long history

Nevertheless, most Americans, if they think about mulberries at all, see them as a nuisance. The soft berries squish underfoot, splat onto cars, and carpet sidewalks and driveways with a sticky mash that, as summer heats up, emits a cloying scent of decay. In the District, the trees are considered a weed. They grow quickly, often sprouting in untended areas, such as between chain-link fences or along highway embankments.

"I didn't even know the fruit was edible to the human," said John Thomas, associate director of the District's Urban Forestry Administration. "We allow people to remove mulberry trees without any permit because it's such an invasive tree."

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