23rd August 2020
By Peter Coles
In mid-August the 300 year-old mulberry tree at Hole 7 on Wanstead Golf Course split in two, a victim of the hot, dry weather and recent strong winds. But, like many other veteran mulberry trees that collapse, this is just the beginning of a more recumbent phase of old age – so long as it’s properly cared for now.
Black mulberry at Wanstead Golf Club Hole 7 in 2018 (Photo: (c) Peter Coles)
As some readers will remember, in February 2019 historian and mulberry enthusiast, Claire Weiss wrote a blog and in-depth article on the fascinating history behind the veteran black mulberry tree next to Hole 7 at Wanstead Golf Club. I’d visited the tree with Claire the year before and remember being excited to add it to our database. We agreed that, based on Claire’s research and the tree’s appearance, it could date back to the 1720s, perhaps planted as a fruit tree in the kitchen gardens of the (long-since-demolished) Wanstead Hall.
It therefore came as quite a shock when Bob Ward, Manager of Wanstead Golf Club emailed Claire with a couple of photos, announcing that the tree had split in half during the very hot dry weather of early August, which had been followed by high winds and thunderstorms.
The Wanstead Golf Club mulberry after it split in two. (Photo:( c) Karl Weiss)
I immediately contacted dendrologist and Honorary Director of the Tree Register, David Alderman, who kindly agreed to join us to assess the damage and advise the Golf Club on what to do next.
Here, with permission, are extracts from David’s report:
"The mulberry on Wanstead golf course looks a typical C18th tree and as such is doing what many pre-1800 trees have already done and that is to gently lay down and carry on growing! The collapse of this tree should not be seen as a catastrophe but rather as a natural progression in its continued growth and long-term survival. Without doing anything, the natural order will be for some of the branches, now touching the ground, to root and begin to grow independently of the parent trunk. The part still upright will also lean over and at some point do the same. Our oldest mulberry trees have all lost their original trunks and survive as a collection of stems rooted in this way."
David Alderman (centre) and Peter Coles (left) inspecting the damaged mulberry (Photo (c) Karl Weiss)
Ancient tree specialist David Alderman gives his prognosis (Photo (c) Karl Weiss)
Closer view of the split showing that the fallen part is still rooted (Photo (c) Peter Coles)
Time to lie down
Supporting David’s comments, there are many examples on the Morus Londinium database and map of ancient mulberry trees that are continuing to grow from roots put down from parts of the trunk or branches that are now lying on the ground (a process known as "layering"). Some of the most spectacular examples I've seen are at Groton in Suffolk, claimed to be mid-15th century, another in a private garden in nearby Edwardstone and those in a 16th-17th century orchard at Syon House.
The ancient black mulberry at Groton (Suffolk) now has multiple stems
from the fallen main trunk through a process called "layering"
(Photo (c) Peter Coles)
The heartwood of trees of all species tends to rot away as they enter old age, leaving the trunk hollow. This is normal and does not in any way mean that the tree is dying. As David Alderman writes about the Wanstead mulberry:
"The splitting of this tree could have been predicted because the extent of hollowing and growth of large internal aerial roots would have been visible for many years. However, as already described, this is the natural course for such an old mulberry to take and its longevity relies on it being in a supine position, supported on many “elbows”. With this knowledge it should not be attempted to cut this back and try to prop this section back upright!"
So let it be…
Not so long ago, when an old tree like this keeled over, the urge would have been to think it was dead, or at least to chop up and remove the fallen section. Nowadays – and especially in the case of the Wanstead Golf Course mulberry which has lots of room around it – the advice is to leave it alone. As David continues:
"The temptation to tidy things up or cut back this fallen section should be avoided if at all possible and only carried out for health and safety reasons or if genuinely causing an obstruction. Neither of which appears to apply here? The fallen section certainly appears to still be well attached with live wood to the main trunk, via outside living wood and internal aerial roots that have thickened and are now also supportive for the crown. Although it can not be guaranteed that some branches may not die back it is impossible to identify these at the moment, which is why leaving everything in situ is important. Pruning parts of this back may also lead to making it less stable and liable to tear off from the main trunk, particularly if it were to roll sideways."
According to David, the size and age of the Wanstead mulberry qualify it for the national hall of fame :
The size of the tree makes this a remarkable specimen! I measured the tree to be 7.5m tall x 297cm girth (circumference) at 0.8m above ground level. Very few mulberry have intact measurable trunks of c.3m in girth and although not the oldest mulberry this is the second largest most intact mulberry in Greater London.* Other trees are already in the horizontal phase of their lives where their original trunks are fragmented or non-existent! Statistically this phase begins any time after a girth has reached 2m and few trees exceed 2.5m before pulling themselves apart. Out of 500 specimen mulberry in Britain the Wanstead tree is 9th largest in Britain when comparing only those surviving with a clearly identifiable short trunk."
But support may be needed
This said, black mulberry trees can live for several centuries under the right conditions, but their long, spreading branches may need to be supported. Indeed, with the exception of a few pollarded trees (such as one at Hatfield House) the majority of veteran mulberries will need to be propped up at some point - or left to collapse and "layer". As David points out:
"The remaining upright section is now more prone to damage from a strong easterly wind and gusty winds coming from the west. In the short-term some careful thinning to reduce the weight and sail area on this part of the crown could be considered. Pruning back to natural breaks rather than “lopping” and topping” is recommended. The latter results in the tree vigorously responding by sending up multiple new shoots, soon creating a denser canopy than currently exists, and creates weak points for the future. To ensure this section remains upright a substantial “A” frame prop would need to be constructed."
Advice on propping may be available from the Ancient Tree Forum? "
Wanstead Golf Club is very proud of its venerable tree and has assured us that they will do whatever is needed to preserve it. We will follow this story with great interest in the months to come.
(c) Peter Coles 2020
*The Morus Londinium database now contains several hundred mulberry trees in the Greater London area, not all of which have been verified, measured and recorded on the Tree Register, so there may still be some hidden suprises...
This blog post has been made possible by a small research grant from the Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London, to Prof. Les Back and Dr Peter Coles. Thanks to David Alderman for permission to quote from his report, to Bob Ward and Gary Roberts of Wanstead Golf Club and, of course, to Claire Weiss for her research and interest in this and other mulberries in East London. Thanks also to Karl Weiss for permission to reproduce his photographs.
Mulberry, a global cultural history of the mulberry tree by Morus Londinium's co-founder, Peter Coles, is published by Reaktion Books (2019) and available from independent booksellers as well as online at Amazon, Blackwells, Waterstones and other sites.