The flower of the day for Messidor 1 in the French Republican Calendar is rye, and I think that’s appropriate. There are many rye grasses with beautiful seed heads in my neighborhood and I love looking for evidence of the wild grains in my urban environment. But today I thought I would pick the plant from my other flower calendar source, Flora’s Dial written in 1853 by J. Wesley Hanson.
In Flora’s Dial, the flower of the day is the mulberry and that brings back happy memories of hours spent in the treehouse my father built in the mulberry tree in our backyard in Van Nuys, California. That mulberry never bore fruit, as far as I remember, although I do vividly remember it’s bark and the ants crawling up and down it. But when we went to the Lake Elizabeth Ranch Club for Fourth of July celebrations, we always spread out our tablecloths on picnic tables beneath a row of mulberries and those mulberries had fruit, small, tart berries which we ate with glee until our faces and fingers were stained purple
According to Hageneder, whose wonderful book on trees I am ordering, there are three species of mulberry (Wikipedia lists a lot more): White Mulberry (mora alba), Red Mulberry (mora rubra) and Black Mulberry (mora nigra). The white mulberry was the tree on which the Chinese grew silkworms, while the Italians used the black mulberry for the same purpose until the 15th century, when they switched to the white mulberry as well. I believe the tree in our back yard was a white mulberry, partly because I inherited my Dad’s Sunset Flower Garden Book from 1950 and it only lists a white mulberry and partly because I remember vividly the beige color of the bark. I also remember the beautiful heart-shaped leaves with a slightly tacky surface and lightly serrated edges but I don’t’ remember any berries. Doing my research for this article, I learned that the tree in our backyard was a male “fruitless” tree, which were popular in Southern California because they were quick-growing shade trees that didn’t create a mess by dropping berries which would stain clothing and pathways.
The Romans knew and appreciated the mulberry. Mrs. Grieve quotes from Pliny who wrote: “Of all the cultivated trees, the Mulberry is the last that buds, which it never does until the cold weather is past, and it is therefore called the wisest of trees. But when it begins to put forth buds, it dispatches the business in one night, and that with so much force, that their breaking forth may be evidently heard.” Horace recommended that mulberries be gathered before twilight and Ovid explained the dark red of the berries by saying that they were stained by the blood of Pyramus and Thisbe who were slain beneath a mulberry tree.
The berries are used to make wine, cordials, pies and jam. According to Jim Conrad, the Natchez Naturalist (who discovered the meaning of life under a mulberry tree), the Natchez Indians used the stringy fibers of the mulberry to make fabric, which they dyed fabric yellow and gold with the bark of the tree. For more information about making cloth and dye from mulberries, see this web site:
The English herbalist Gerard recommends mulberries to treat sore throats, coughs and constipation. A juice of the unripe berries was used as a mouthwash. The Chinese used all parts of the White Mulberry for healing. The leaf was used to get rid of “wind heat,” thus clearing the liver and brightening the eyes. The fruit moistened and nourisheed yin while the twigs dispersed “wind” and promoted the flow of chi. The bark cooled and purged “lung heat.”
The Chinese World Tree was sometimes considered a hollow mulberry tree. A sacred mulberry grove, was planted outside the eastern gate of early royal capitals in China. The mulberry is also often found along Islamic sanctuaries or near pilgrimage routes in Arabia. According to Wikipedia, Mulberry Appreciation Day is celebrated on the last Tuesday of May.
Here are some nice images of mulberries from New York City:
Conrad, Jim, The Natchez Naturalist, May 11, 2003
Grieve, Mrs. M, The Modern Herbal,
Hageneder, Fred, The Meaning of Trees, Chronicle 2005
Hanson, J. Wesley, Flora's Dial:
The illustration is supposedly from Gerard's herbal but I can't find it in my edition.