The Oldest Mulberry In Britain
The Mulberry planted at Syon in 1548 by Botanist, Dr William Turner
When I was invited to visit the oldest tree in the East End recently and readers subsequently led me to other ancient Mulberries in the territory, I did not expect that my journey would take me over to Syon Park in West London where the oldest Mulberry of all flourishes.
Yet I doubt if many visitors who cast their eyes from the windows of the long gallery of the fine eighteenth country house, designed by Robert Adam for the Duke of Northumberland, even notice the venerable Mulberry growing close to the ground in the water meadow and surrounded by its own enclosure.
Botanist, Chaplain & Physician to the Duke of Somerset, Dr William Turner planted Mulberries and laid out physic gardens, publishing his Names of Herbes here in 1548, less than ten years after the dissolution of the Abbey. The previous year, Henry VIII’s coffin had rested overnight at Syon on its way to Windsor for burial and the discovery next morning, of canines licking up seepage from the coffin, is claimed to have been the origin of the derogatory “Dog’s Breakfast.”
Henry might well have been very grateful of some Mulberries for their medicinal qualities in his later years, as outlined in the Names of Herbes by the knowledgeable Dr Turner who imported the tree from Persia -
“The Virtues of the Mulberry tree
The fruit of the Mulberry tree looseth the belly and it is good for the stomach, but it is easily corrupt or rotten. The juice of Mulberries doth the same. If it be sodden in a brazen vessel and set out in the sun, it is good for the flowing of the humours, for eating sores, and for inflammation of the kernels under the chin, with a little honey. But his strength increaseth if ye put unto him alum de pluma, galles, saffron, myr, the seed of Tamarisk, Ireos or Aris, and Frankincense. The unripe berries of this tree are good to be dried and bruised and put into meat in the stead of sumach berries for them that have the flix. The bark of this tree sodden in water, looseth the belly. It driveth broad worms out of the belly. It is also good for them that have drunken the poison called aconitum pardalianches or libardis bayn. The leaves are good to lay at a burning. The juice of the leaves taken in the quantity of cyat is a good remedy against the biting of the field spider. It is good to wash the aching teeth with the broth of the bark and leaves hot, to drive the pain away. The roots being cut, nicked to scorched, about the last end of harvest, ye must make a furrow around it, and it will put forth a juice which ye may find in the next day after clumped or grown together. This juice is exceedingly good for toothache, it scattereth and driveth away swelling lumps and purgeth the belly.”
John Claudius Louden, the celebrated Botanist, Landscape and Cemetery Designer drew the Syon Mulberry and described it as twenty-two feet high in 1834 when he surveyed it for his definitive horticultural work, the Aboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum. Already, in his time, the tree was held up by props, but in recent years it lies supine in the buttercup meadow, stretching out its limbs like a weary old man relaxing in the long grass.
I was grateful for the generosity of the gardener who, upon learning that I had come from other side of London to see the Mulberry, took pity on me and led me through the locked gate into the private grounds where the ancient tree grows in peace, far from the tourist crowds. This is the last riverside meadow that has not been embanked, where the Thames rises up each winter to cover it with water, and it was lush with wild flowers that you would not expect to see in the city. There, surrounded by cow parsley and with beehives nestling among its branches, the oldest Mulberry in Britain takes its ease.
“It hath hoary flowers, and a fruit in proportion something long, – in colour, when it cometh first forth, white – in continuation of time it waxeth red and afterward, when it is full ripe, it is black.”
The Syon Mulberry as illustrated in Loudon’s ‘Aboretum & Fruticetum,’ 1838
The Syon Mulberry has its own enclosure in the water meadow
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