15th June 2017

Every year since 2011 the Environment team at the Greater London Authority has been co-ordinating events during London Tree Week, as part of the London Tree Partnership’s activities to preserve the capital’s trees and promote planting of new trees. As part of this year’s events, Morus Londinium’s mulberry heritage specialist, Peter Coles, led a series of walks around four areas of London to hunt down their often hidden mulberry trees. The series kicked off with a walk from Charlton to Deptford, taking in some remarkable old (and not-so-old) mulberries.

Morus Londinium exhibition at Charlton House celebrates its 400 year-old black mulberry and London’s 2000 year-old mulberry tree heritage.

Charlton House to Sayes Court Park

This Tree Week walk, sponsored by Morus Londinium, was not only also part of the Chelsea Fringe this year, but it also coincided with an innovative exhibition at the Charlton House mulberry, where the walk started. The exhibition included a clever pivoting mirror, etched with information about mulberries, while other displays around the 400 year-old mulberry gave information about Charlton House, the origin of the tree, and a time-line of the mulberry in Britain since its introduction by the Romans.

(1) It was a glorious, sunny day in what had been a very unpredictable few days in terms of weather. Around 25 of us gathered at 11 am on a Sunday morning by the old mulberry tree in the grounds of Charlton House.  The management team had kindly opened its Mulberry café especially for us, offering walkers the freedom to discover the inside of the house, as well as getting a drink or something to eat. In the summer, when the mulberries are ripe, the café sells home-made mulberry patisseries.

The walk was an extended version in reverse of last year’s Sayes Court to Greenwich walk. After an introduction to the Morus Londonium project, Peter talked about the role old mulberry trees can sometimes play as signposts pointing back in time, encouraging us to dig deeper to find what stories they have to tell. The Charlton mulberry is thought to have seen over four centuries come and go since was planted – probably when the Jacobean house was built, around 1609-11.  

(2) From Charlton House the large group crowded onto two buses for a short ride to Greenwich Park, where we headed for the cricket pitch. With Peter’s help we picked out the distinctive shape of an old black mulberry in the distance – much lower than the surrounding trees, with a spreading crown and definite lean to the trunk. Peter spent some time identifying the characteristics of black mulberry leaves and the differences between male and female catkins. The female catkins turn into fruits, while the male catkins die and fall off, once they have released their pollen.

Greenwich cricket pitch mulberry.

(3) From here we crossed diagonally north-east, passing the recumbent (and

moribund) Queen Elizabeth oak, to the Queen’s Orchard.  This walled garden harbours another ancient black mulberry, possibly as old as the Charlton tree. But we had to be content with a view of the top of the crown of the tree over the orchard wall as the volunteer staff were on their lunch break.

Queen’s orchard black mulberry in 2016

(4) Skirting along the herbaceous border path, with views up to the Observatory, we then crossed through the Maritime Museum to the Dreadnought Building of Greenwich University, still being refurbished and so off limits. However, we could see a fine old black mulberry through the railings.

Morus nigra in the grounds of the Greenwich University Dreadnought Library

(5) Peter then took us round the side of the building onto College Way, where there is a row of white mulberry trees (M. alba) inside the railings and around the adjacent Stephen Lawrence building.  Planted by the Worshipful Company of Fruiterers for the Millennium, these trees are different varieties of white mulberry –13 trees in all. They offered the group a chance to appreciate the more delicate, thinner, glossier and lighter green leaves of M alba compared to the coarser M. nigra leaves.

Fruit and leaves of Morus alba (white mulberry) on the Greenwich University campus. The term “white” refers to the colour of the buds, not the fruit, which can be snow-white, pink, or even very dark purple, depending on the variety.

(6) As some of the group left to benefit from the transport options at Greenwich, a hard core carried on, round the Cutty Sark and along the Thames Path to St. Nicolas Church in Deptford, where there is a splendid dwarf weeping white mulberry.

(7). From St Nicholas’ Church we took the last leg of the walk to Sayes Court Park, on the site of the house and gardens of 17th century diarist, John Evelyn. There is some speculation about whether Evelyn planted this tree – or was it one of his descendants, or perhaps regrowth from the scion of an older tree (see article on this blog by local resident, Karen Liljenberg). Whatever its origin, it was certainly not, as a plaque claims, planted by Peter the Great, who had rented Sayes Court as a young man when he was studying naval architecture in Deptford. Peter the Great notoriously ruined Evelyn’s prized holly hedge by having himself driven through it in a wheelbarrow during a drunken party. 

Mulberry leaves on the iron gate into Sayes Court Park, and the group at the final stop, Sayes Court mulberry.

The Sayes Court mulberry looks strikingly similar to the rather larger tree at Charlton (and the one we didn’t see in Queen’s Orchard). It provided a satisyingly symmetrical ending to the walk.

Article and photographs by Peter Coles

Follow the walk online
Share with