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A Brief History Of London’s Mulberries

June 29, 2016
by Peter Coles

Several readers who visited the exhibition of proposals for the site of the former London Chest Hospital by Crest Nicholson & Circle Homes contacted me in alarm when they discovered the developer planned to construct a new building which appears to be upon the site of the Oldest Mulberry in the East End, even though it is subject to a Tree Protection Order.

The London Chest Hospital developers’ website makes no mention of the historic Mulberry.

Outlining the cultural significance of this celebrated species, it is my pleasure to publish this metropolitan arboreal history by Peter Coles who is currently undertaking a Survey of Mulberries in the capital.

Jacobean Mulberry at the site of the former London Chest Hospital in Bethnal Green

At the last count, a survey being carried out by the Conservation Foundation’s new Morus Londinium project has identified over one hundred and thirty-five sites with Mulberry trees in London – and there are likely to be many more, with new trees coming to light every week.

As The Gentle Author discovered, it is fairly straightforward to trace the history of some veteran Mulberries, like those at Syon House and Charlton House, back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But others, like those hiding anonymously in East End gardens or beside the recycle bins on a street corner in Belsize Park, might be described in the words of Percy Bysshe Shelley, as “Lost angels of a ruined paradise.” Yet what was the nature of the horticultural paradise they have fallen from?

A common assumption is that these old Mulberry trees dotted around the city are left over from the failed attempt by James I to start a home-grown silk industry in the seventeenth century. His plan was to rival the lucrative monopolies of France and Italy in silk production and get rich, as they already had. Silkworms feed exclusively on Mulberry leaves – a secret the Chinese managed to keep for over two and a half thousand years – but these trees are not native to Britain.

In 1609, James wrote letters to all his Lord Lieutenants. Appealing to their patriotism, he offered them Mulberry saplings “at the rate of three farthings a plant, or at six shillings the hundred containing five score plants,” or more affordable packets of Mulberry seeds for the less well-off, so that they could establish plantations to feed thousands of silkworms. Around a hundred thousand saplings were imported for this project.

James created his own four-acre Mulberry Garden in the grounds of St James’ Palace – now the north-west corner of the garden behind Buckingham Palace – and an adjacent corner of Green Park. His consort, Queen Anne of Denmark, shared his enthusiasm and also established a Mulberry plantation, complete with silkworm nursery, at Greenwich Palace and another at the Royal Palace at Oatlands in Surrey. The Mulberry in the Queen’s Orchard in Greenwich Park is quite likely a Jacobean survivor, as is the tree at Charlton House.

The surviving Mulberries – and over ninety per cent of those in the Morus Londinium database – are black Mulberries (Morus nigra), a species that is native to what used to be the Persian Empire including present-day Iran, Turkey & Syria, where they are grown for their fruit not their leaves. Yet it was the white Mulberry (Morus alba) that underpinned China’s silk industry, a lesson the Italians and French also learned. Even though the black Mulberry was known to the Romans and grew around the Mediterranean, it was the white Mulberry that the Huguenot French king, Henry IV of France, had been planting in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris to encourage silk production.

Terraces of white Mulberries still survive in the Ardèche, Cevennes & Provence regions of France today, often next to disused or converted magnaneries (silkworm houses) where they supplied the silk industry around Lyons. And it was precisely from these regions that Huguenot weavers fled to England – notably Spitalfields  - when the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685, unleashing persecution against Protestants.

So why did James I, apparently, import and plant thousands of black Mulberries? As silk historian John Feltwell, points out, mature white Mulberries in England can be counted on the fingers of one hand and none can be traced back to the silk industry. James’ advisers knew very well that silkworms thrive on the leaves of white Mulberries.

In 1607, Nicholas Gesse published his The Perfect Use of Silk-wormes, which was a translation of the definitive French textbook on silk & Mulberries, written by horticulturalist, D’Olivier de Serres. This and a book published in 1609 by William Stallenge (who became Keeper of the King’s Mulberry Gardens), entitled Instructions for the Increasing of Mulberrie Trees, clearly explain that, while both black and white Mulberries can be used to feed silkworms, the white should be chosen if possible. These texts also say that silkworms will eat the leaves of the black Mulberry but that the silk is coarser and the thread breaks more easily.

Despite efforts lasting into the reign of Charles II, England’s home-grown silk industry never took off. This is often blamed on the choice of the ‘wrong’ Mulberry but the truth is probably more complex. The English climate does not suit the white Mulberry, which is used to much warmer weather, so it may have been a deliberate choice to plant the black species. After all, this was the height of the ‘Little Ice Age’ in Britain, when the first Frost Fair was held on the Thames in 1607. Perhaps the climactic conditions made it harder to get the timing right to match the supply of Mulberry leaves – even those of the black Mulberry -  with the hatching of silkworm larvae?

At the same time, James I was also trying to get a silk industry off the ground at Jamestown, in his North American colony of Virginia. Shiploads of white Mulberries were sent over, although the silkworm was found to be happy with the native red Mulberry (Morus rubra). Another theory is that this discovery may have led English silk producers to underestimate the silkworms’ dislike for leaves of the black Mulberry.

A few decades later, the English Civil War took minds away from what was proving to be a marginal industry. Mulberry plantations were eventually grubbed out, although the Mulberry Garden at St James’ Palace did enjoy success as a Pleasure Garden late into the seventeenth century. John Evelyn & Samuel Pepys both mention visiting it. Today, Buckingham Palace garden houses part of the National Mulberry Collection but Gardens Manager, Mark Lane who started the collection in the nineties, confirms that none are James I’s plantings. When he showed me around, Mark could point out thirty-five named varieties held in the collection, mostly white Mulberries and just a few decades old. The oldest specimen is a cutting from Shakespeare’s Mulberry, taken long after the Bard’s death.

There was a last-ditch attempt to revive London’s silk industry around 1718, when the Raw Silk Company established a plantation of two thousand Mulberry trees and a silkworm nursery in Chelsea Park, between Fulham Rd and King’s Rd – which may have been upon the initiative of Huguenot weavers in Spitalfields. But this only lasted for a few years and, by 1724, the trees and the silkworm house were sold off. Interestingly, Chelsea still has several old Mulberry trees and one is in Mulberry Walk on the site of the original plantation.

It is a mystery why there should be black Mulberries in and around the East End today. While this was the heart of silk weaving, it was never a place where Mulberries were grown on a scale required to produce silk commercially. Around 50,000 cocoons are needed to produce 1 kg of silk thread. That is a lot of silkworms and a lot of leaves, even though silk is very light and 1 kg would make many yards of silk ribbons. Perhaps people planted Mulberries out of nostalgia? It would be interesting to discover if there is any evidence for raising silkworms in the East End. Yet, with their understanding of silk production, why would they have planted black Mulberries?

Although attempts to produce raw silk in England petered out, the country developed a thriving silk industry in the eighteenth century, based upon raw silk imported from Italy, Persia, Bengal & China. This was the heyday of weavers in Shoreditch & Bethnal Green, until the industrial revolution saw the processes of throwing and weaving silk thread mechanised.

Yet there is another strand of the capital’s Mulberry heritage which goes back much further than James I and has nothing to do with silk. Excavations of water-logged Roman sites in London in the seventies found well-preserved Mulberry pips, revealing that Mulberry trees were introduced and cultivated in London as early as the first century AD. They would have been grown for their fruit, which the Romans appreciated in their feasting and its medicinal properties – Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century AD, writes of its value as a mouthwash.

These were also the reasons why black Mulberries were planted in medieval gardens of manor houses and monasteries – particularly the ‘physic gardens’ associated with infirmaries. John Gerard, in his Herball of 1597, writes - “The barke of the root is bitter, hot and drie, and hath a scouring faculty: the decoction hereof doth open the stoppings of the liver and spleen, it purgeth the belly and driveth forth worms.”

Like Spitalfields, much of Central London is built upon the ruins of medieval monasteries, razed after Henry VIII dissolved them. Part of Bartholomew Close, adjacent to the infirmary of the priory church of St Bartholomew-the-Great, was once a Mulberry garden. A very old Mulberry stump was found and grubbed out in the eighteen hundreds but there is a much more recent black Mulberry there today, next to the Lady Chapel of the church.

The Mulberry planted in 1548 at Syon House – formerly a Brigettine monastery founded in 1415 – pre-dates any interest in a silk industry. The Tudor Lambeth Palace has fine old black Mulberries and there is one next door, in what is now the home of the Garden Museum, near to the tomb of landscape gardener, John Tradescant. There is both a black and a white Mulberry in the grounds of the Tudor Fulham Palace, former home of the Bishops of London. And we must not forget the venerable – and threatened – black Mulberry on the site of the London Chest Hospital is on the site of Bishop Bonner’s manor house.

Finally, there was a fad for including black Mulberry trees when public parks were laid out at the end of the nineteenth century. Often these parks – like Brockwell Park – were created in the grounds of much earlier mansions. Vauxhall Park has a young Mulberry trunk sprouting from a much older bole, probably planted when it was laid out in the eighteen-eighties by Fanny Wilkinson, Britain’s first celebrated woman landscape gardener, who also designed Myatt’s Fields Park where there is an old black Mulberry tree to be discovered.

The Morus Londinium project sets out to record and research London’s mulberry trees to raise public awareness and protect them. If you know of a Mulberry or wish to find out more about London’s Mulberries, visit www.moruslondinium.org.

The Tower of London Mulberry

The Haggerston Mulberry

The Dalston Mulberry

The Whitechapel Mulberry

The Stoke Newington Mulberry

The Deptford Mulberry

The Charlton Mulberry

The Charterhouse Mulberry

The Middle Temple Mulberry

The King’s Bench Walk Mulberry

The Oldest Mulberry Tree in Britain at Syon Park

You might also  like to read about

The Oldest Mulberry in the East End

The Haggerston Mulberry

The Dalston Mulberry

The Whitechapel Mulberry

The Stoke Newington Mulberry

The Oldest Mulberry in Britain

Three Ancient Mulberry Trees

25 Responses leave one →
  1. June 29, 2016

    Thank you Peter/GA for getting so much info on Mulberry trees in one blog, all in a nutshell. All the oldies must be heritage trees now. That’s nice they all have location names. You are right to make us aware of these trees. ? Is there a mulberry tree guardian for London. On my next visit to Kew Gardens I will search out the Black/White Mulberry trees I understand they are nice in tarts the berries are similar to raspberries. PS bloggers do visit Kew G and see the gigantic aluminium beehive and hear the buzz buzz. John

  2. malcolm permalink
    June 29, 2016

    There are mulberry trees in the garden of Drapers Hall in the City. You can see them if you walk through Throgmorton Avenue to Throgmorton Street.

  3. Teresa Stokes permalink
    June 29, 2016

    There is a tree in my street which produces lots of fruit every year from early August, but passers-by have no idea what it is and always ask me “what’s that?” when they see me picking it. One should wear black when doing so as when the fruit is ripe the juice gets all over you at the slightest touch, and your hands soon look as though they are covered in blood, in fact my only neighbour who knows what the tree is, is from Eastern Europe and she tells me they call it the blood fruit in her country. You know that harvest time is here when you start to see the red splashes on the pavement. The fruit is difficult to harvest as there is a very small window of opportunity, only about a day, before it drops off the tree to the ground and it strikes me that this is why nobody seems to grow them commercially to eat. I have never seen them for sale in this country, although one can buy them dried in Persian grocery stores – delicious.

  4. June 29, 2016

    Absolutely fascinating. And wonderful photographs. More, please!

  5. Nicholas Keeble permalink
    June 29, 2016

    Thank you for another fascinating piece. I remember playing in my grandmother’s Hertfordshire mulberry orchard, now covered with houses, 60 years ago. The trees are so memorable for children, not only for their wonderful berries, but also for their spreading nature which makes them easy to climb.

  6. James permalink
    June 29, 2016

    There was a mulberry tree in the communal garden of the mansion block I used to live in the 1980s in Highbury Crescent. I hope it’s still there. I remember being told at the time that quite often mulberry trees are not actually as old as they look. Don’t know how true this is.

  7. June 29, 2016

    May I introduce? MY TREE, an Oak Tree of more than 500 years, located at the Sensenstein near Kassel, a natural monument, has lost some of his larger branches during the last thunderstorms. But that doesn’t bother him. He has survived 500 years of human history!

    http://www.fotocommunity.de/pc/pc/pcat/850904/display/35991654

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  8. June 29, 2016

    Mulberries are very short lived and don’t travel well. Probably planted widely as source of fresh food. Also they make wonderful jam

  9. June 29, 2016

    This reminds me that I have been intending to plant some mulberry for quite a while noe.Only problem is I am looking for a new property to rebuild and I’d like to plant then.Maybe both as I don’t have to see them grow do I?

  10. Patricia Peters permalink
    June 29, 2016

    Thank you for the wonderful stories of the London Mullberry trees. There is one in the Met. Police Sports ground in Chigwell Essex
    Pat

  11. Suzanne Bingley permalink
    June 29, 2016

    Fascinating article! I believe that there is a mulberry tree at the back of The Royal Marsden Hospital in Fulham Road, at least there used to be, when I worked there.

    We have a black mulberry in our garden here in Georgia USA. The fruit are delicious, but I need to learn how to harvest the ones on the high branches!

  12. June 29, 2016

    A wonderful piece, thank you. We used to have a mulberry tree in our school playground in Portsmouth, which must have been much older than the surrounding (Victorian) buildings. Some pupils took great delight in throwing ripe fruit at the white school uniform shirts of others …

  13. Peter Holford permalink
    June 29, 2016

    These are very characterful trees – old and gnarled and having survived many vicissitudes. I hadn’t realised that Henry IV was the French king who developed the silk weaving industry in France. It seems that his spinners may have had more integrity than him in choosing to go into exile for their religious beliefs whereas he converted to Catholicism, reputedly saying that Paris is well worth a Mass.

  14. Greg Tingey permalink
    June 30, 2016

    I have a very small (weeping) White Mulberry in my back garden …..

  15. June 30, 2016

    i live in madison, wisconsin, u.s.a. mulberries just show up wild in your yard here, maybe from bird droppings (?) usually they get cut down as nuisances – especially trees by the street or sidewalk – the ground gets all sticky with fruit. these are dark colored mulberries. if you have one appear in your back yard where nobody complains, you can get a good crop for jam and pies and other pastries. i think these are some sort of native north american species, and i’ve never heard of them used for silk, just jam & pastry :-)

  16. Keith Marshall permalink
    July 3, 2016

    Just outside Greater London, in Waltham Cross there are (I think they’re still there) two old mulberry trees in Cedars Park. This is the site of the old Theobalds Palace, acquired by James I from Robert Cecil in 1607. Charles I spent some of his childhood there. I don’t know if the two mulberries have ever been dated, but it is possible they date from the early 17th century. I remember the trees from my early childhood in 1950s; they were already very ancient then. I’m fairly sure one, if not both, are still there.

  17. Shawdian permalink
    July 4, 2016

    Thank you for the delightful photographs of the wonderful Mullberry Trees. One Mullberry tree is also in existence in the garden of the home of the Playwright George Bernard Shaw. I was Custodian of and lived at Shaw’s home Shaw’s Corner for eight wonderful years and in that time my husband made some potent and very tastey Mullberry Wine each year from the huge and luscious berries. These are magical looking trees and I was so proud to conserve the beautiful specimen which brought delight to most of the yearly 15 thousand visitors. The Mullberry tree has much grandure and I miss sitting underneath the proud branches as I read a good book shaded from the bright sunshine and looking up seeing the beautiful light glowing through the light green shiny leaves. Very pleased our London Mullberies are protected. We need to treasure them.

  18. Mary Moulder permalink
    July 12, 2016

    I had not realized that the big black Mullberry tree in my Michigan, USA. back yard had such a long and honorable ancestral history. I don’t gather the berries, but leave them for the fun of watching the fox squirrels and a variety of birds share together from the annual abundance of the tree. It begins to produce in May, and my white house and grey car are stained with purple into the late summer. The tree has survived lightening strikes, heavily iced limbs, and the Michigan Power Company.

  19. Martin Palmer permalink
    September 8, 2016

    I recall a Mulberry, back in the late 60’s. It was on or near to Brownlow Road. In my memory, it was in the street, on the pavement, not in anyone’s garden. And the trunk was bigger, much bigger than anything in these pictures. Of course, memory is not entirely reliable! And, indeed, I was smaller.
    Does anyone remember such a tree?

  20. September 28, 2016

    Just spotted an interesting ‘mulberry tree’ article in the Bermuda Gazette in March 2015

    http://www.royalgazette.com/article/20150321/NEWS/150329939

    Both Dr Burgess and Dr Wingate have worked tirelessly on the mulberry project and the DNA barcoding tests were undertaken at the end of 2014 of Bermuda trees to find out whether these were native to the island .
    Their team in USA are based at Dr Burgess’s lab at Columbus State College in Georgia who wrote the Bermuda Gazette article .
    http://facstaff.columbusstate.edu/burgess_kevin/website/Kevin_S_Burgess_lab.html

    Email :

    In Heacham West Norfolk England village ‘legend’ says Princess Pocahontas planted a mulberry tree at HEACHAM HALL when legend says she visited her husband John Rolfes mother and family with their toddler son Thomas Rolfe just 400 years ago in 1616-1617-An old mulberry
    tree is growing outside the Heacham Manor Hotel that on the old 1610 village map in Norwich County Hall archives has HEACHAM HALL GROUNDES in large typed letters above this Manor site that in 1541 became home of the 3rd Duke of Norfolks family Sir Thomas Howard

    Princess Pocahontas may have brought the seeds to plant from her Varina home in Henricho Virginia where there is close by a mulberry island later used by the American AirForce

    OR from Syon Houses oldest 1548 mulberry tree where they stayed in the Duke of Northumberlands two cottages on his estate at Brentford when they left the BELLE SAUVAGE INN when she became sick in London close to St Pauls Cathedral who also had mulberry trees at that time.
    Princess Pocahontas met King James 1 and Queen Anne on twelfth night 6th Jan 1617 for a special masque ball with Ben Johnson play ‘Vision of Delight’ celebration at Whitehall Palace so maybe King James 1 gave her his mulberry seeds to plant in Heacham before she sadly died at Gravesend Kent on the return journey and was buried in the Chancel of St Georges Church on March 21st 1617

    So would it be possible to ‘bar code’ these old special 400 year old trees to see whether they are all linked and extrapolate their DNA to compare – perhaps with help from the Kew Gardens expert dendo-chronologists or the Oxford team with Dr Martin Bridges ?

    Bermuda has old mulberry trees that John Rolfe would have recognised and maybe kept their seeds with tobacco plants seeds he found there when they were shipwrecked in July 1609 and possibly on Trinidad on their journey to Jamestown as he is the oldest son of John Rolfe senior a successful farmer in Heacham -hence he started the first tobacco plantation in Virgina in 1610 that traded successfully to Europe -read about this in a new book AMERICAS FIRST ENTREPRENEUR by John L Rolfe

    http://www.bookdepository.com/Americs-First-Entrepreneur-John-L-Rolfe/9781467950817?ref=bd_recs_1

    Look forward to your reply

  21. Malcolm permalink
    October 18, 2016

    I recently discovered Mulberry trees in what used to be the grounds of the Chaplaincy of St. Andrew’s Church house in Hornchurch. The house and grounds were sold in 1969 and the and flats were built on the site. This development is known as Chaplaincy Gardens. The Chaplaincy was first set out in 1399, built by New College, Oxford which owned the land at that time, and which still has links to the Church and other buildings in Hornchurch, notably Langton’s Primary School.
    The Mulberry trees that remain were probably planted in the 17th century when the old Vicarage was demolished and new one was built along with formal gardens. The land was previously part of Hornchurch Priory and was adjacent to Hornchurch Hall which was demolished in 1941. William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, bought all the land, including the village of Hornchurch, when the priory was dissolved and endowed it to New College.
    It’s interesting that so many Mulberry trees are found in Church gardens and in places where Churches, Priories and other religious conglomerations once existed. I don’t know if there’s a link between the Mulberry tree and religion or whether the Mulberry was seen as a kind of arborial aristocrat, the tree that denoted the high status of the owner.
    Anyway, the Muberries are in the grounds of Chaplaincy Gardens if anyone is interested.

  22. Sheila Crowson permalink
    November 17, 2016

    When I was 17, many, many years ago, I did one week as a student working in Tiptree, Essex, sometimes picking mulberries. It was an international camp, living in tents and great fun. If we missed the lorry to the orchard, we had to bicycle there. I seem to remember that after picking the mulberries, when one washed hands the red stain turned to blue. Wilkins & Sons of Tiptree make a mulberry conserve sold by Waitrose.

    I am especially interested in mulberry trees for their connection with the silk industry. Many of my ancestors were silk weavers in Spitalfields – Cheverell and Dormer – but I think the silk they used was imported since the black mulberry is no good for silkworms.

    The spitalfieldslife.com site is so interesting. I’ve only just discovered it.

  23. Sheila Crowson permalink
    November 17, 2016

    I should have added to my previous post, that I lived in Wokingham, Berkshire for many years, and when teaching took children to a very old house in Rose Street. The lady living there tried to save an old mulberry tree grown nearby, and it was moved to her garden due to redevelopment. I think it survived for a while but thought it had died. The story goes that the local people made silk stockings for Queen Elizabeth. There was also an old building, now demolished, called the silk mill.
    However mulberry trees have been located and recorded by the Wokingham District Veteran Tree Assn. http://www.wdvta.org.uk.

  24. June 23, 2017

    That’s fantastic I live in Bracknell so can go check out Wokingham’s mulberries thanks Sheila.

    I saw a great one at Down house recently, where Darwin lived – he looked out fondly over it and allegedly wrote origin of the species there… It is so old and weathered by the years that at one stage somebody has poured concrete into the hollow trunk to keep it standing – it is just about clinging on!

  25. Elaine Postill permalink
    July 20, 2017

    Fascinating article, thank you.
    I just wanted to let you know about our mulberry tree in Colson Way, SW16 1SF. It looks prob about 200 yrs old but that it is a guess. It is outside our little shop Emmi’s. Maybe it dates back to the Thrale family who had an estate here? Sadly, two days ago half of it fell down as it had got quite top heavy. It was touching to see the concern of residents on the current estate ( a bit different from the Thrales estate I imagine. Our estate was built after the war).

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