22nd June 2016
Back in March this year I went to Cadogan Place Gardens in Chelsea to look for the old black mulberry trees I’d read were there and said possibly to date back to the 17th century. As a non-resident I couldn’t enter the garden, so had to try to pick out the tree(s) from outside the iron railings, squinting through the still bare trees and bushes. At the south end, on the edge of the lawn, I was sure I could see what looked like two reclining black mulberries, their twisting branches looking almost fused together. I took a ‘paparazzi’ photo through the bushes and decided to go back when the leaves were out.
Almost three months later, to the day, and at the end of what had been a fairly sodden week, it was a blessing to have sunshine on Sunday morning for Open Garden Squares weekend (18-19 June), when, at last, the iron gates to Cadogan Place Gardens were open. This was my chance to get up close to the mulberries.
In fact, there are two gardens – the smaller, north garden originally laid out by Humphrey Repton and completed in 1806, and the larger 2.5 hectare South Garden, which has the mulberries.
The South Garden was originally the site of the London Botanic Garden, created by the celebrated naturalist and author of Flora londiniensis, William Curtis, which he had moved from its previous site in Lambeth Marsh, in 1789. Before 1790, there was no development on the east side of Sloane Street, where Cadogan Place is now, and was still mostly fields and market gardens, as can be seen on Cary’s map published in 1799, but drawn up earlier. Interestingly, the River Westbourne is shown flowing directly beneath today’s gardens. The site was an undeveloped part of an estate inherited by Charles, 2nd Baron Cadogan on the death of Hans Sloane in 1753. Cadogan had married Sloane's daughter in 1717. The site was ambitiously developed in the 1770s as Hans Town by architect, Henry Holland Jr and his father, Henry Holland Sr, a builder. The present Hans Place, on the eastern side of Sloane Street, was part of this development.
In 1791 it was decided to lay out undeveloped land on the east side of Sloane Street as a long garden, divided into two by Pont Street - the smaller north garden laid out by Repton and a new design for the London Botanic Garden by William Salisbury, who was William Curtis’s partner and successor after his death in 1799 (at the ripe old age of 53…). The new garden was laid out in 1807, including a central glass conservatory, as well as a library, hothouse and a greenhouse. Twice a week, students of horticulture would come for lectures in the garden.
After a few decades, in 1874, the lease on the site was due to expire. By this time, the area had become run down and new plans for its redevelopment were drawn up, including changes to the gardens. The Botanic Garden was replaced with a much simpler design, which has stayed much the same, at least until 1976, when several mature elms were removed because of Dutch Elm disease.
Cadogan Place South Gardens
I was curious, then, to find the mulberry trees and to try to get a feeling for when they may have been planted. From the history of the garden it seemed that the earliest planting would have been by William Curtis in 1789, with a more likely date of 1807, as part of the new design by William Salisbury and, finally, a possibility that the mulberries were only added when the Botanic Garden was simplified in 1874. I was looking for trees, then, that would be between about 150 and 230 years old, given that they would have been planted as saplings and not seeds. It already seemed very unlikely that the tree(s) would have had anything to do with James 1st 17th century silk project, or indeed the short-lived 18th-century silk farm project in Chelsea Park, a mile away down the Kings Road.
As I walked through the main Sloane Street gate, a brass band was just starting to play under an awning on the south side, to my right. This was near to where I’d spotted the old mulberries in March. But before I even got there I saw, right in front of me, what was unmistakeably another mature black mulberry. I hadn’t been able to see it from the street in March as it was hidden behind bushes. Today it looked beautiful, surrounded by poppies, grasses and meadow flowers. At a guess, it could be over 100 years old – but not 230. Then, as I ducked under the curtain of leaves to take a photo, I saw yet another black mulberry a few metres away. This one looked only about 30 years old. So far, then, expecting to find two ancient black mulberries, I’d already found two more, albeit younger ones.
When I’d skirted round the elegant ladies sipping Pimm’s by the awning and the brass band, which was now playing jazz, the reclining black mulberries I’d seen from the street were obvious, forming a huge, low-hanging mass of distinctive leaves at the south end of the lawn. The total circumference of the canopies was over 50 metres. There were, as I’d thought, two separate trees, each with the typical ‘Y’ branching of the trunk, about 1 metre above ground. This can mean that the tree was grown from a ‘truncheon’ (from the French tronçon) - in other words, a branch, about as thick as an arm, that will grow into a new tree when put into the ground. This was a common technique for planting mulberry trees and recommended by 17th century authorities like John Evelyn and Olivier de Serres.
Now leaning backwards at a steep angle, like an old couple sitting in deckchairs, the two trees have sent out massive branches, twisting down to the ground. They are so intertwined that it is hard to see which branch belongs to which tree. Having seen several Victorian mulberry trees by now, my guess is that these could have been planted when the garden was redesigned in 1874, but, from the map of the Botanic Garden, they could also easily be 70 years older.
Already elated at finding the two new trees near the meadow as I had come into the garden, I had now been rewarded with the close-up of the old trees I’d seen from the street. But there was more. Just as I was getting to grips with the internal organic architecture of the old trees, I came smack up against the very vertical trunk of yet another, young black mulberry, again about 20 years old.
So, having come to see two old trees, I had discovered that Cadogan Place South Garden has no fewer than five black mulberries. Thinking there might be others, I rounded off the morning by touring the rest of the gardens. But, no, that was the lot. And there aren’t any in the North (Repton) garden either.
The residents of Cadogan Place are very privileged to have such a perfect place for foraging. I hope they enjoy the fruit!
Daniel Lyson (1811) The Environs of London Vol. II Part I