Foraging for Art Supplies: The White Mulberry Project

Serena Kovalosky holding foraged mulberry tree branches.
Serena Kovalosky with foraged mulberry tree branches from pruned trees. Photo by Bami Hurley © Serena Kovalosky

Now I’m getting to the fun part of the White Mulberry Project: foraging for my art supplies!

I’ve researched the history of the tree with its connection to the silk trade in China, how it arrived in the United States and, locally for me, its roots in the economic history of my hometown of Whitehall, New York. This provides a solid foundation for working on the artwork.

My own little mulberry trees (pruned to bush-size and now in their second year) have developed nicely and will be a great source of leaves for my artwork.

Pruned mulberry tree at Serena Kovalosky Studios
Pruned mulberry tree, year two, at Serena Kovalosky Studios. Photography © Serena Kovalosky

But they are too young to provide berries and bark. So I put out a call to anyone with a mature white mulberry tree and thus began my adventures in foraging.

Mulberry trees are fairly easy to spot – they are a very creative tree with sprawling branches and leaves that look like an artist created them…each one is vastly different, especially on younger trees. Some trees are male (and do not produce berries), some are female…and some are both!

Three leaves from a white mulberry tree.
Three leaves from Serena Kovalosky’s white mulberry tree. Photography © Serena Kovalosky

The tricky thing about identifying mulberry trees is that they readily hybridize with each other. So although pure red mulberry and white mulberry trees have specific characteristics, they each may have characteristics of the other. Here is a good general overview from Red Mulberry vs. White Mulberry

Leah Boule was the first to respond with a beloved mulberry tree she used to visit while tending the cows on her farm in Whitehall, NY. The berries were sweet, copious and made great pies. Alas, that was decades ago. When her son Ian went out to check on the tree, there were plenty of leaves but no berries, possibly due to the unusual frost we had last April.

Darn! I was looking forward to tasting my first mulberry! But I still might be able to forage for branches and berries.

Leah Boule's White Mulberry Tree.
Leah Boule’s white mulberry tree. Photo courtesy © Ian Boule

Fortunately, Leah’s other son, Aaron, and his wife Heidi, had just bought a property in South Glens Falls, NY…with a mulberry tree! We drove out, armed with a tarp for catching the berries since I read the best way to collect mulberries is to shake them off the tree.

The mulberries were beautiful!

White mulberries on a branch.
Berries from Aaron’s white mulberry tree. The ripe ones are dark purple. Photography © Serena Kovalosky

Aaron took charge of procuring the berries. It was quite the endeavor as none of us knew what to expect, and we weren’t sure it would work. We were very careful not to step on the berries as they stick to your feet and can make quite a mess!

Shaking the mulberry tree to get the berries.
Shaking the mulberry tree. Photography © Serena Kovalosky
Mulberries on tarp under tree.
We got berries! Photography © Serena Kovalosky
Picking up tarp full of berries.
It was tricky picking up the tarp and keeping the berries from rolling out. Photography © Serena Kovalosky
Aaron with a tarp full of berries.
It worked! We got a tarp full of mulberries. Photography © Serena Kovalosky

Now I have berries for making ink! And I got my first taste of mulberry. I anticipated a blackberry or raspberry flavor because of its appearance but it tasted more like a fig (the tree belongs to the Moraceae family, which includes figs and jackfruit.)

More mulberries! A neighbor of Leah’s heard I was looking for mulberries so she offered to get some at her sister’s. She had the tarp all laid out, shook some berries onto it and her sister’s dogs went galloping across the tarp, smashing the berries and staining their paws (and probably the kitchen floor!) Undeterred, she went back again, kept the dogs in the house and managed to collect berries for the project. Grateful!

Next up, a tour of Whitehall’s mulberry trees! My neighbor Bami Hurley works for the Whitehall DPW and knows every tree in town. She offered to take me around to visit several local mulberry trees. There was one right in our park on Main Street! We picked up some branches from pruned trees and now I have more art materials!

Woman overlooking trees in a park
Bami Hurley and a white mulberry tree in Riverside Park, Whitehall, NY. Photography © Serena Kovalosky

Another mulberry tasting and more branches. Pamela Landi is a trained landscape designer who has been assisting me with preparing my Eco-Garden for The Mulberry Project event in August. She invited me to her apartment in Fort Edward where she has three white mulberry trees and I discovered that not all mulberries taste the same. The berries of one of the trees was SO sweet, it makes you want to go bake a pie. The others weren’t as memorable. The tree-shapes were fabulous.

Mulberry Tree
Mulberry Tree in Fort Edward, New York. Photography © Serena Kovalosky

A few weeks later, Pamela surprised me at my studio with a car full of mulberry branches she had pruned from a garden she was managing. The leaves were huge which gave me some ideas for one of the art pieces and the branches were large enough to forage bark for weaving.

Woman pulling branches out of the back seat of her car.
Pamela Landi’s car filled with mulberry branches. Photography © Serena Kovalosky

I am so grateful to everyone for their efforts! (As the saying goes, “It takes a village…”) These “mulberry experiences” are a necessary part of the creative process for developing my sculptures for this project.

Now that I’ve had a taste of mulberry, I am also contemplating a culinary component to my presentation/exhibition in August.

SerenaK signature

A note on responsible foraging: I only take what I need. I make sure to leave enough berries to share with wildlife. I never harvest bark off a living tree. I only take branches that have been pruned or need to be removed. I always give thanks for what I take from nature and give back to nature in any way I can.

See all articles on this project in my Mulberry Story-Box

Do you have a White Mulberry tree in your yard or town? Share your stories and mulberry memories in the comments below!

CLICK for the background story of The White Mulberry Project

The White Mulberry Project: A Silk Road Runs Through It

In 2023, Serena Kovalosky was awarded a New York State Rural & Traditional Arts Fellowship for the White Mulberry Project, administered by the Arts Council for Wyoming County in partnership with the New York State Council on the Arts. Funding for this project is made possible with support from the New York State Council on the Arts with support from the Governor’s office and the New York State Legislature.

NY Council on the Arts and Arts Council of Wyoming County Logos

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