Green Neighbors: Streamlined Half to Death: Me and the Mulberries

By Ron Sullivan
Wednesday April 08, 2009 - 06:12:00 PM
All-male pollinating flowers on the mulberry in front of our place, as see from the front porch.
Ron Sullivan
All-male pollinating flowers on the mulberry in front of our place, as see from the front porch.

If I were one of Those Kids These Days and had a working laptop with WiFi, or an iPhone and faster fingers, I could’ve filed this closer to last week’s deadline. It would’ve been live from Alta Bates’ lovely and relaxing Emergency Department. As it is, I’m seizing the moment to declare myself a late casualty of Dutch elm disease. 

My street, like a few others in Berkeley, is lined with mulberry trees of the cultivar “Fruitless” or its moral equivalent. “Fruitless” is a male clone, produced by rooting twigs with male-only flowers on them. Mulberries in general have both sexes of flowers—unlike, say, hollies that have either male or female flowers on any one tree, so you need a female tree if you want berries—but each flower isn’t “perfect” or bisexual. Mulberry fruit, produced by female flowers, is delicious, hard to buy because it doesn’t ship well, and juicy: “messy” in landscaping parlance.  

I grew up with a fruiting mulberry in the neighborhood back in Pennsylvania. Our mothers hated it; we considered it our friend, clubhouse, snack bar, wonder of the world. I’ll admit to bias. 

In a slow wave after the turn of the last century, the grand elms that had graced American cities began dying of Dutch elm disease. There are still a few left, even here in Berkeley. Street trees are absolutely an advantage to cities, in terms of good old-fashioned civic pride as well as tangible health and conservation benefits. We quantify those these days, and people have accumulated hard data to back up their liking for trees in the city.  

The scramble was on to find something to replace the dying civic trees, and the techno-optimistic 1950s were just the decade to start Doing It Right. “Non-messy” trees were ideal: so easy, so advanced, so scientific! Except for the scientific part. Seizing the jargon of physics has crippled all sorts of fields, even as it has streamlined grant-writing. Nothing, as it turns out, is really all that rocketshaped. 

I’ll leave the analogies between messy gooey fluid-scattering females and neat self-contained non-cyclic males to the reader’s imagination.  

Mulberries are wind-pollinated, with small, relatively inconspicuous flowers, not those floozy accoutrements flaunted by, oh, magnolias and plums and horsechestnuts. They’re independent of bees and flies and birds for pollination; they toss their sperm packets promiscuously into the wind. 

Have you ever seen a pollen grain under a serious microscope? They tend to physical jaggediness, to cling to whatever receptive ovary they land on. More to the point, they’re proteins. Allergens, as opposed to mere irritants or other poisons, have something in common with their victims, something that triggers our immunity responses as if they were fellow biological beings. They’re organic. Our bodies think they can kill us. 

And they can, but of course indirectly.  

I’ve been living on this street for nearly 15 years, which would seem to be my personal sensitization window. I’m sitting around, as of this writing, with an arterial-blood pPO2 below 44. The combination of 20th-century landscape horticulture and 21st-century medical referral speeds just might kill me. 

Interesting times.