Knoxville: The Mulberry Place

Why aren't we celebrating our mulberry heritage?

Mulberry season is upon us. It's here—Knoxville's first tree fruit of spring. Mulberry Fest 2011! Mulberry jam, mulberry pie, mulberry face painting, mulberry wine, mulberry wrestling. Bus tours of the mulberry trails.

It makes sense that the old Cherokee name for the Knoxville area, kuwanda'talun'yi, means "Mulberry Place." Here, mulberry trees sprout through the sidewalk like weeds, and people battle to keep the tenacious orange roots out of flower beds and house foundations. This problem is unique to this area; before I moved to Knoxville, the only mulberry tree I had ever seen was at my Grandma's house in Tahlequah, Okla., where it was considered a stately yard tree. Some people plant mulberry trees on purpose. But because of its regional ubiquity the mulberry has junk-tree status in Knoxville. We take it for granted.

In A Pattern Language, a bible of urban design I revisit often for hope and inspiration, Christopher Alexander writes, "In climates where fruit trees grow, the orchards give the land an almost magical identity: think of the orange groves of Southern California, the cherry trees of Japan, the olive trees of Greece." Or the mulberry trees of Knoxville.

We should set aside some land specifically for the mulberry groves to flourish. The empty lots along North Central Street and Broadway seem right for this. They are guaranteed to be low-maintenance parks embracing our regional pride, improving our air quality, and beautifying the city.

As it is, you can find an abundance of mulberries growing in the in-between places of Knoxville—on property lines, in abandoned lots, in alleys and the edges of backyards. These places belong to nobody, and are thus fair game for foraging. A small grove of mulberry trees grow along First Creek Greenway close to Glenwood Avenue. They make a nice juicy mess on the asphalt under the trees. The mulberry looks like an elongated blackberry, but is much sweeter. A juvenile mulberry tree—the one growing out of a crack in your chimney, maybe—looks more like a bush than a tree. Mulberry leaves come in all different shapes, even on the same tree. A mature mulberry tree bears little resemblance to its adolescent self.

The mulberries that grow around here are best eaten slightly underripe for the most delicious combination of sweet and tart. Children love mulberries and should be encouraged to eat them. Foraged mulberries are tasty, vitamin rich, locally grown, probably pesticide-free, and ripened naturally. Mulberries are ideal health food. However, you probably can't find mulberries in a grocery store. They are delicate and do not keep. Your only chance is to find a tree and pick your own.

Mulberries are perfect raw, or in summery deserts. They are delicious in jam, smoothies, and on top of ice cream. The best way I've consumed mulberries lately is in the mulberry mead invented by local herbalist Nickie Bold. She is teaching a class on local plants at Bonnaroo this year. If asked, she may share her recipe.

The mulberry tree is a good symbol for Knoxville. It is a scrappy volunteer, beautiful in a seedy way, and impossible to kill. Its roots run deep and wide. Let's celebrate mulberries with their own Knoxville festival.