Fingers, toes combine for colorful take on season

Fingers, toes combine for colorful take on season
John C. Lorson

With summer officially here, mulberries are right on cue to provide an easy-to-harvest, ready-to-eat snack for the next few weeks. Mulberry trees produce large quantities of fruit, which, as you can see in the photo, actually ripen in succession. That means you can return to the tree day after day to find more fresh fruit awaiting harvest.


The season of green toes and purple fingers is upon us, and I couldn’t be more pleased than to be wearing a full complement of each at this very moment. With the sun setting just past 9 p.m., I’ve got just enough daylight to get a dose of each even after riding back home from work. The green toes come from mowing the lawn. And the purple fingers? That’s what you get living “hand to mouth” under a mulberry tree at this time of year.

I really don’t know where the mulberry trees were when I was a kid, but they definitely weren’t in my neighborhood. Had our little gang of bandits known of one nearby, we would’ve descended on it like a swarm of starlings and sparrows and eaten the thing down to leaves and twigs. Instead, we were forced to spend our berry-picking days in the briar patch, sacrificing skin and blood to thorns and mosquitoes in order to gather relatively meager quantities of blackberries and raspberries.

Gathering mulberries is a cakewalk compared to that. All you do is reach up and pick: no bushwhacking, no thorns, no blood. Some folks even ride the mulberry-collecting gravy train a full stop further by spreading a sheet underneath the tree and giving it a good shake. The ripe berries fall, and tomorrow’s batch hangs on tight. Nothing should be this easy.

One thing you’ll need to make sure of is that you never intend to use that sheet on the guest bed. It’ll look like a paint-ball target by the time you’re done. My family and I learned the hard way about the staining capability of the deep-purple fruit by pitching our tent directly under the canopy of a particularly large mulberry specimen one evening. Not much happened until an hour or so before dawn when every bird within 5 miles came to breakfast overhead. It was ugly — in more ways than one.

There are many varieties of mulberry growing in our state, although only the red mulberry is native to the Americas. The white mulberry, a native of Eastern and Central China, was brought to Colonial America in hopes of cultivating food stock for the silkworm, which relies entirely on the plant for its nutrition. Unfortunately for the entrepreneurs, the scheme never fully panned out, and the whole silk-farming scheme fizzled. The white mulberry, however, seemed to get along swimmingly in its new territory and soon “naturalized” (or began to successfully propagate on its own) and spread all across the Eastern U.S. and throughout the Midwest.

Now nearly 400 years on the white mulberry and various hybridized versions of the plant have earned the distinction of being targeted as weeds in many agricultural landscapes. The trees produce incredible amounts of fruit, which are gobbled by both birds and mammals alike, both of which happily “pass the seeds along,” contributing to a constant spread of young plants from wooded edge into field, and even though harvest and cultivation equipment “busts up” the young plants, they are quick to heal and spread out even further.

I have noticed a steady reduction in my own “snack stops” along the trail as landowners have worked to remove the trees to head off this spread.

If you’ve got a mulberry in your yard and are more inclined to love it than hate it, be sure to get out and gather right now. The annual ripening tends to cluster on both sides of the summer solstice. You’ve got a few weeks left at best.

Now about those “green toes.” I’m sure to get some questions, so I’ll just confess right now to committing a weekly act that defies all norms of safety and logic and one against which I strongly recommend: I mow my lawn barefoot. As a matter of fact, I do most everything around the house barefoot during the summertime.

I’m not sure how it all started, but my buddy, the foot doctor, is convinced he knows how it will end — with him sewing my toe back on my foot. (It’s really not as dangerous as it sounds. I mow with a motorless reel-type push mower. If I lose a toe to that thing, it probably means I should just be put down anyhow.) Green toes and purple fingers: They're a summertime tradition.

If you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email Lorson at

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