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

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."

The British were partly responsible for that invasion. Although the Washington area has a native red mulberry tree, the most common ones in town are descendants of trees brought over by colonists eager to compete with the silk industry of the Far East. Silkworms feed on the shiny, heart-shaped leaves, especially those on the white trees, said Alan Whittemore, a botanist at the U.S. National Arboretum.

"For many years, it was a requirement," he said. "If you owned property in the Virginia area, you were required to plant a certain number of mulberry trees each year." The experiment fizzled: Silk production required labor that was cheap but skilled, and tobacco proved more profitable.

But the mulberry trees liked Washington, and with the help of birds, who eat the berries and expel the seeds, their population swelled. They now number in the thousands.

Which is good news for people who like them, most of whom seem to have grown up elsewhere.

"The native people don't pick them," said Ephraim Melik Ausar, 50, a former Marine and rare U.S.-born aficionado who makes a point of visiting the Potomac Park trees each May and June, when they fruit. He said he occasionally shares a "fellowship moment" with other pickers: "The people who I see are from different countries, the people with the accents."

Foraging in the wild

Mulberries are not the only "secret harvest" known mostly to immigrants. Natives of East Asia flock to ginkgo trees to harvest the seeds, said Yao Afantchao, ethnic and specialty crops specialist at the University of the District of Columbia, and immigrants from West Africa gather wild amaranth to cook as a green.

In some cities, including San Francisco, New York and Portland, Ore., the trend has expanded beyond ethnic communities, with urban foraging tours pointing out such delicacies as mustard greens, edible mushrooms and snails.

But even some who grew up in cultures where urban foraging is the norm are wary here. Natalia Grincheva, 29, of the District recognized the berries littering the sidewalk behind the Giant supermarket near Washington National Cathedral. In her girlhood in Saratov, Russia, they grew in public spaces, and kids loved to eat them. But here, she doesn't dare.

"Because it's dangerous," she said. "Because of all the chemicals you have."

Back under the wet branches near the Key Bridge, Shokravi, who moved to the United States when she was 8, had no such worries. As she filled her bag, she recalled the first time she came across this tree, three years ago. That day, she said, "I made a friend. A little old Palestinian lady comes out of nowhere from between the branches, and she was also picking them."

Mostly, however, her forays are a solitary enterprise. She takes her harvest back to her Arlington County apartment, where her freezer contains mulberry sorbet and mulberry ice cream. One night last week, she pulled a jar of homemade mulberry jam out of her fridge and spooned it onto balls of cookie dough, using a recipe for raspberries that she had found online and converted.

As the smell of butter and fruit wafted from the oven, she was already thinking about her next harvest. Mulberry season ends this month, but near some of her mulberry trees she recently discovered a hidden cache of grapes growing wild. The fruit is still green and tiny, but promising. She's keeping an eye on them.

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