18th December 2018


by Peter Coles


The Milton Mulberry  in the Fellows' Garden at Christ's College Cambridge , planted in 1609, a year after the poet was born

(Photo: Peter Coles)

It was a cold, dark and wet January day when I took the train from London to Cambridge to meet local historian Nick Chrimes. He was going to show me the celebrated ‘Milton Mulberry’ in the grounds of Christ’s College – and a few others that are much less well known. I prefer to visit old mulberry trees from November to April, as this is when the ‘architecture’ of the tree can be seen more easily. Once the leaves are out, many old trees, with their drooping, heavy branches, can look more like massive green tents, obliging one to scramble under the canopy to see the trunk. A few weeksafter I'd been to Cambridge I was trampling around the ancient mulberry orchard at Syon House, and in March I made a pilgrimage to Groton Winthrop (Suffolk) to see perhaps the oldest black mulberries in England. I’ll be writing about these in the next few weeks.

I began corresponding with Nick Chrimes when I came across his book, Cambridge: Treasure Island in the Fens, which traces the city’s history from the Iron Age to the present. In an appendix to the third edition (2015), he offers his ‘verdict on the university’s attempt at sericulture.’ Who better, then, to show me the so-called ‘Milton Mulberry’ at Christ’s College, often (erroneously) said to have been planted by the celebrated poet, John Milton(1608-74), author of Paradise Lost, when he was an undergraduate there? As Nick soon pointed out, Milton was a student at Christ’s only from 1625, graduating in 1629 and gaining his Master’s degree in 1632. College archives, however, reveal that the ‘Milton Mulberry’, had, in fact, been planted in 1609, the year after the poet was born. It would already have been a young, albeit quite tall tree, when Milton knew it. He may however have sat in its shade.

Like so many trees said to have been planted by a celebrity, the ‘Milton’ association is therefore post hoc– a fairly modest, 25-year anachronism in this case, unlike the 16th century saints and bishops who apparently sat under trees planted 200-300 years after they'd died. Milton was ‘sent down’ from Christ’s for a term, too, apparently because of an argument with a don. It is unlikely that a disrespectful, even if brilliant, undergraduate would have been allowed to take a spade to the Fellows’ garden, even if he’d wanted to (also unlilely).

The mysterious mound

The ‘Milton Mulberry’ is truly extraordinary. Tucked away at the far end of the Fellow’s Garden, the tree is inaccessible to all but the most determined, the non-resident visitor having to cross two courtyards and pass through a gate to find it. But there is stands, a handful of trunks and branches poking out at all angles from a high mound, and held up by wooden props.   A hundred feet away is a diminutive replica – another, much smaller black mulberry, also with its own little mound, and reputedly a scion of the older tree.


A scion of the Milton Mulberry has been planted nearby  (Photo: Peter Coles)

The oldest Syon House mulberry is also on a mound, albeit not so high or conspicuous. A collapsed old black mulberry in Queen’s Orchard, Greenwich is on a high mound, but has entirely collapsed, as is another old mulberry in Jesus College, Cambridge, not far from the Christ’s tree.


The black mulberry in Jesus College, also on a mound, may be the same age as the Milton Mulberry (Photo: Peter Coles)

While it is true that mounds were popular landscape features in Tudor gardens, offering a high viewpoint, the Cambridge college mounds are not that old and seem to have another purpose. ‘Mound layering’, is a well-established technique for propagating fruit trees and other woody plants. Black mulberries spontaneously propagate in this way – the collapsed trunk of an old mulberry, or its branches, will send out roots and eventually form a new stem, some distance from the first.  This will, in time, rot away.  The oldest trees in the Syon House orchard – and the Groton mulberry – are perfect examples of this. By pruning or pollarding the lower branches of an old tree and then covering the lower trunk with a mound of earth, new shoots will produce roots and send up stems that will eventually survive as clones of the parent tree, when the original stem finally declines.



Mound layering is an established technique for propagating woody plants


Early 20th century postcards show the Milton mulberry  on a mound

While early 20th century postcards show the Milton Mulberry with its mound, a 19th century watercolour by British artist Richard Banks Harraden (1778-1862) shows the leaning tree with props, but no mound.  The mound is, at the oldest a 19th century addition, then, and most probably there to encourage layering. 


A watercolour by British artist Richard Banks Harraden (1778-1862) shows the leaning tree with props, but no mound

An article by J.J. Smith, published in 1840 supports the probability that the mount was created in the latter 19th century to encourage the branches to layer:

"Yet, short as the branches are, it has been found necessary to support them with a number of strong timber props; which are carefully disposed around, with much more attention to the preservation of the structure, than to the gracefulness of its appearance. The necessity for these crutches arose from the decay of the main trunk; the interior of which has long been stuffed with a rich composition of manure; while the outside has been encrusted with a covering of sheet-lead. The bark, which alone survives, would of itself be utterly insufficient to support the superincumbent weight." 

Cambridge sericulture

Christ’s College veteran mulberry, then, was not planted by John Milton – and wasn’t planted on a mound either. But what is its origin? 

As we have reported elsewhere in these pages, in 1608 James I embarked on a venture to plant mulberry trees on a large scale, in order to sustain an English silk industry.  In an edict published that year, James asked the ‘Lord Lieutenants of the Shires of England to persuade and require such as of ability […] to buy and distribute in that country the number of ten thousand mulberry plants.’ The edict offered them Mulberry saplings ‘…at the rate of three farthings a plant, or at six shillings the hundred containing five score plants.’ More affordable packets of Mulberry seeds would be available for the less well-off. The aim was for landowners to establish mulberry plantations to feed the thousands of silkworms needed to start a viable silk industry. The prospect of establishing mulberry plantations from seed was fairly far-fetched, as it would take at least 10-12 years for the young trees to produce enough leaves and even saplings would take some time to be hardy enough to have most of their leaves stripped each year.  

Nevertheless, James appointed a former Plymouth customs officer, William Stallenge, to oversee the project. Stallenge, in turn, enlisted the help of a Frenchman,  François de Verton, Sieur de la Forêt. On his rounds of the shires, de Verton found the Cambridge colleges rather reticent at first. But not long after,  Nick Chrimes notes, archives for Emmanuel College, Jesus, Christ’s and Corpus Christi all took up James’s challenge: ‘…the six months accounts from October 1608 for Emmanuel […] report ‘For mulbyrie plants at the kings appyntmt 300 – XVIIIs [18 shillings].’ And, adds Chrimes, ‘another entry in 1612 refers to labour costs for … digging a fence dych and setting fourtie mulberry trees – xii s xd [12 shillings and 10 pence].’

Black mulbery in Bursar's Court, Corpus Christi College, also about 400 years old (photo: N. Chrimes)

Black mulberry in the Master's Garden at Corpus Christi   (Photo: N. Chrimes)

There is no record of silk being made from the mulberry trees, but, says Nick Chrimes, the colleges continued to spend money on building and maintaining sheds to house the silkworms and mulberry leaves throughout the 17th century. ‘At Corpus, for example,’ he writes, ‘18 pence was spent on two more trees in 1636/7 and labour costs were recorded in 1649/50 for enclosing the mulberry tree. […] It seems improbable that these expenses would have been incurred if there had been no income from silk during the previous fifty years.’

The black mulberry in Emmanuel College is probably Victorian, but the College also planted mulberries around 1609  of which there is now no trace (Photo:Peter Coles)

Milton’s mulberry at Christ’s and other surviving old mulberries in Emmanuel, Corpus Christi and Jesus were therefore probably not planted as solitary trees, or for aesthetic reasons. They seem to have been planted along with several others – possibly hundreds – to sustain a sericulture industry.  Cambridge’s 17th century silk project fizzled out as it had elsewhere in England for a host of reasons, but mainly poor weather (England was experiencing a Little Ice Age) and a poor grasp of the effort required to obtain sufficient cocoons from very fickle silkworms.

Mulberries and silk were pastimes for the aristocracy in England, whereas almost everywhere else, sericulture was a cottage industry performed by peasant farmers who sold their cocoons in central markets. As happened again with the Chelsea Raw Silk Company in the early 18th century, when there was another attempt to grow mulberry trees to feed silkworms, the trees were eventually grubbed out, leaving just one or two survivors that are still growing today.  Interestingly, there is a suggestion that white mulberries were also planted in Cambridge (as they were in Chelsea 100 years later), but nowhere in England does a white mulberry tree survive from before the 20th century. Its insipid fruit is not prized, except for its  medicinal value or use as a sweetener, so is often not maintained.

In the next newsletter, Stephen J. Bowe, author of Mulberry: the material culture of mulbery trees, and a contributor to these pages, will write about some  other mulberry trees. associated with Milton

© Peter Coles, December 2018


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