The Keats House Mulberry Tree. Pic: Peter Coles

Here We Go Round

2nd September 2016

Mulberry trees have been planted in London since Roman times. As the Conservation Foundation launches a new campaign to document their history and record old examples, Jack Watkins muses on their idiosyncratic appeal.

The trunk of the old mulberry tree in the front garden of Keats House is gnarled and knobbly, bent and twisted. In fact, it’s almost prostrate on the lawn. If you weren’t aware of the growth habits of the species in its mature years, and were it not for the profusion of leaves, so thick that you must pull the twigs back to inspect the characterful bark, you’d fear for its future.

The large, serrated-edged leaves are coarse to touch, almost nettle-like and, in mid-July, the fruits start to resemble blackberries. Keats never wrote about the tree, though it is thought to date back to the 17th century, and may once have been part of a Hampstead orchard, right on the edge of the Heath. Today, the young children, and their parents keeping a close watch, are naturally too engrossed in their activities to pay much attention to this ancient specimen, but it’s easy to see why the Conservation Foundation has made the mulberry tree the subject of its latest new campaign.

Ostensibly Morus Londinium is about rediscovering and documenting old examples of the trees, but another of its underlying motivations is to encourage Londoners to reconnect with the capital’s often overlooked natural heritage. The mulberry is certainly a tree guaranteed to stimulate the imagination, both in terms of appearance and its history.

Seldom growing too large – examples over 25ft are rare, though it can grow to 40ft – and with thick, leafy canopies offering good shade, they are quite popular as a town tree, though as they age, the reclining tendency, as seen at Keats House, means that they need a bit of space, and often some help from supporting props. It is not a great idea to plant them on streets, however, as falling fruit can stain clothes.

Neither the black mulberry (Morus nigra) nor the white (Morus alba) is native to Britain, their origins being in western Asia and China respectively. While it’s often written that the trees were first introduced to this country in the 16th century, according to the Conservation Foundation, they were here much earlier than that.

The Romans placed much value on mulberries, both for their fruit and their medicinal benefits. Because their perishable berries could not be imported, Roman residents in England seem to have been planting black mulberries for their fruit in Thameside settlements before the fifth century (the fruit of the black, or common, variety is considered superior to that of the white). Mulberries were dedicated to Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, according to the classical author Pliny. ‘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,’ he wrote, though he also spoke highly of its use as a mouthwash.

Later, mulberries were planted in the infirmary gardens of medieval monasteries and abbeys in and around London. The city’s oldest surviving mulberry seems to the one at Syon House (site of a Bridgettine monastery), planted in 1548. The sixteenth century apothecary John Gerard wrote that the bark of the mulberry root opened ‘the stoppings of the liver and spleen, and driveth forth wormes’. A variety of other medieval uses are known.

It’s long been thought that Britain’s mulberry heritage owes almost everything to King James I. Keen to build a national home silk industry to rival those in France and Italy, he encouraged the establishment of mulberry plantations, and took the lead by planting on land which is now part of Buckingham Palace and Green Park. However, while mulberry is indeed the food plant of the larva (or silkworm) of the silk-moth, the insect’s preference is for white mulberry, whereas James’s nurserymen planted the black. It is generally considered that this odd choice caused James’s initiative to fail, but, says the Conservation Foundation, that’s not quite right. After all, silkworms do feed on the black mulberry which, in any case, is better suited to our cool, damp weather, whereas the white has a preference for sunnier, drier conditions. The English silk industry was still thriving into the 18th century, benefitting from the skills of refugee Huguenot weavers from France who settled in the East End, though it never quite lived up to the forecast of John Evelyn, the great diarist and promoter of silviculture, in the 1660s that ‘mulberries in four or five years may be made to spread all over this land’.”

Today, mulberries can be found all over London, and the Conservation Foundation wants people join them in researching and finding out more about their history. You can take part in various guided mulberry walks, upload photos, plant a free King James I sapling, forage and find out about mulberry recipes from the dedicated website at www.moruslondinium.org – which is also an invaluable source for finding out about known examples.

Unfortunately, not all of these are readily accessible. Some ancients are in private gardens, or in London’s residential squares, which are only open to the public on particular days of the year. Some locations can be frustrating. I cursed in my attempt to seek out the splendid old mulberry just outside the entrance to the Tower of London. The garden in which it resides was closed, and the view from the pathway by the moat not very satisfying.

I headed for St James’s Park, where there was a mulberry garden in the 17th century. Old trees stand, possibly as survivors from James I’s day, on rising ground behind the lake on the Birdcage Walk side. It was not a good experience. A man who goes round looking at old trees on a hot weekend when everyone else is sporting themselves on the grass is, at best, a foreigner in his own land; at worst a rather unsettling lurker… but never mind. More immediately annoying was to find that closer inspection was tricky, for the trees had been colonised by a couple of kids and their father for a holiday photo shoot.

You can’t deny the potential fascination of old mulberries for youngsters though. The way their branches arch out and down often mean the thick leaf canopies create the perfect secret hideout or cavern.

I had better luck in Kensington Gardens – always the best of the Royal Parks anyway – where an avenue just to the south and west of the Palace is lined with old and new plantings. The mulberries here have straight trunks, which allows you to appreciate the orange colour of the bark, as well as its texture. The berries are obviously very popular with woodpigeons, one being very busy hoovering up those which have fallen on the path in front of my bench.

Perhaps these trees are members of the National Collection of mulberries, established on the Royal Estate gardens in London in the 1990s. Mulberries are certainly an adornment of the London treescape, whose squares are often dominated by the monotonous, rather characterless London Plane. There should be more of them.

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