17th May 2019
by Stephen J. Bowe
Just like Britain and some other countries in Europe, North America has its own emblematic mulberry trees, with interesting stories to tell. Unlike Europe, though, North America has its own endemic species of mulberry – the red mulberry (Morus rubra) – which can produce majestic trees in its native forests. Some of the oldest mulberry trees in the USA today, though, are white mulberries (Morus alba), introduced on a large scale in the 17th to 19th centuries for a homegrown silk industry.
Mulberry Row, Monticello Foundation (USA)
Some of the most notable mulberries are to be found at the Monticello Plantation, in the State of Virginia, which once belonged to the late American president, Thomas Jefferson. The plantation’s social history embraces both tobacco cultivation and slavery. A central feature of this historic site is Mulberry Row, a quarter-mile avenue of mulberry trees (originally red mulberries), along which the slave quarters and some industrial buildings (including a nail foundry) were developed in the 1770s. When Jefferson created the plantation, this was the hub of the site, which employed both free and enslaved workers, apparently on equal pay.
The United States has its own history of silk production, too, using imported white mulberry trees to feed the silkworms. The Shakers – a celibate religious group famed for their design and material culture – not only reared silkworms to produce silk thread, but were also involved in spinning, dyeing and weaving it to produce their own fabrics and clothing (see Mulberry: The Material Culture of Mulberry Trees). Shaker silk production mainly developed around Kentucky, particularly in the South Union community, which was established in 1807. Many of the clothes and textiles they produced, such as beautiful silk scarves, are highly regarded today.
A Bower of Mulberry Trees by Hannah Cohoon
The Shakers were generally opposed to all forms of art, but Hannah Cohoon – from Hancock Shaker village – created spirit drawings, such as A Bower of Mulberry Trees (1854). She also created a series of tree illustrations, including Tree of Life, produced the same year.
Some American silk producers had associations with the silk industry in England, including the Macclesfield-based Gaddum family.
Mulberry artefacts past and present
In 1634 the first governor of Maryland, Leonard Calvert (1606 - 1647), signed a treaty with Native Americans (Piscataway tribe), apparently under a mulberry tree. As was the case with Shakespeare’s mulberry, when the Maryland mulberry finally died in 1876 a number of artefacts were created with its timber to honour this historic signing. In the 1890s, a carpenter, Charles Crane, used some of the seasoned mulberry wood to carve a match-holder, featuring dove motifs, which recently appeared in an auction catalogue.
Match-holder by Charles Crane
As well as their biblical connotations, The Ark and The Dove were references to the names of the ships that brought pilgrims from England to Chesapeake Bay in 1633 to create new settlements.
The Ark of the Founders and other artefacts by Janel Jacobson
Ark and dove have reappeared in more recent wooden artefacts, too, such as The Ark of the Founders, by Janel Jacobson (2010) using wood collected by William Jewell of Historic Woods of America. This work was based around similar themes to those addressed in the Watson Box housed at Winterthur Museum.
Janel Jacobsen created beautiful botanical sculpture pieces using wood from trees associated with American presidents and governors, such as George Washington, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe – often growing in the grounds of properties they owned. The ark in Jacobsen’s work was created using a piece of horse chestnut wood from a tree planted by George Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Similarly, a small mulberry leaf sculpture was created from a George Washington era mulberry tree from Mount Vernon, Alexandria, Virginia.
Mulberry leaf in wood from a George Washington era mulberry tree (Janel Jacobson)
According to Janel Jacobson, “Thus, from the woods planted by the founders, I carve small subjects from nature that, to me, symbolise hopeful potential.” Hopeful potential has always been the main motivation of anyone who plants a mulberry tree.
Text by Stephen J. Bowe