23rd December 2019
By Peter Coles
The last four months have been very busy, and as Morus Londinium is still looking for more secure funding, the project has mostly been run solo (by yours truly), albeit with critical support from the Conservation Foundation in the form of website hosting and an institutional home. I’ve been able to keep the database (and map) more or less up to date, and have led a few walks, but I haven’t been keeping the blog going as regularly as I’d have liked.
On this winter solstice, as the year inches towards a close and the light starts to return – it seemed like a good time for a brief update on what’s been happening behind the scenes.
The big event for me, and I hope for mulberry lovers too, has been the publication of my book, Mulberry (Reaktion Books). It seems to have been ages since I finished it, but, as I’ve learned, it can then take the best part of a year to finalise details, clear copyright permissions for illustrations, get the book printed and, finally, into bookshops.
The idea for the book – and later the Morus Londinium project – first came in 2011, when I stumbled across an old black mulberry tree in Sayes Court Park (Deptford), while out photographing veteran urban trees, and reconnoitring an urban/nature walk for MA students at Goldsmiths. This discovery led to many others, each with its own story. My original book proposal was to write about these London mulberries and their unique heritage, but publishers sometimes have a broader vision and their own perspective. That was the case with Reaktion, whose Botanical series has a global scope for each species it covers. So I found myself embarked on a long (virtual) journey, which took me from Neolithic China, to Ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy and 17th century Virginia… Most of these travels were in the cosy security of the British Library’s Map Room.
Sayes Court Park mulberry (c) Peter Coles
The book, then, has been a long time coming. But on 26 November I could finally host a launch party at my wonderful local independent bookshop, West End Lane Books (West Hampstead. At one point in the evening it was packed with friends, family, present and past students, colleagues and other guests. Then, on 12 December, I gave a lecture and second – more academic – launch at the Royal Asiatic Society, followed by a Persian meal in the company of new friends from the world of mulberries and the Silk Roads. Thanks to RAS Director, Alison Ohta for inviting me and hosting the event.
Now, the book is “out there” I can relax and let it follow its course. But not for long – I’m now drafting a follow up…
Mulberry tree visits
Balliol College Fellows' Quad - scion of a 400 year-old mulberry in Garden Quad
Since September, when time permits, I’ve been going slightly further afield to visit celebrated old mulberry trees outside London. These have included a 1609 black mulberry in the Garden Quad of Balliol College, Oxford and four other venerable specimens – scions of the original tree I believe – elsewhere in the college grounds, one also in Garden Quad planted by Queen Mary in 1921 and another near to it, planted by Princess Margaret in the 1950s. There are two others in Fellows’ Quad, one also an old, partly hollow pollard tree, and another by the east wall.
I also paid my respects to a handsome, upright, but much younger tree at Trinity College, next door, possibly also from the 1950s?
Mulberry in Merton College Fellows' garden - planted in 1609?
Oxford Botanic Garden
Oxford Botanical Garden Morus alba - the oldest in the UK
Next to Merton stands the Oxford Botanic Garden, UK’s oldest botanical garden (founded in 1621), which also boasts England’s oldest white mulberry (Morus alba), thought to have been planted 200 years ago. The garden also has a (youthful) black mulberry, a recent red mulberry (Morus rubra) and a Paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera).
The orchard at Syon House
In September I’d gone to one of my favourite places, the hidden (and private) mulberry orchard behind Syon House. I’d hoped to take some measurements (girth and height) and draft a rough layout of the orchard, but the trees were so overgrown with brambles, I couldn’t easily get close enough. I decided to return in March, if Head Gardener, Topher Martyn will let me.
Buckingham Palace Gardens
Morus alba leaf in the National Collection
In November, I returned to Buckingham Palace Gardens, which is home to 42 mulberry taxa (species, hybrids and cultivars) comprising the UK National Mulberry Collection, to pay a return visit to the Garden Manager, Mark Lane, around six years after my previous visit – before Morus Londinium got off the ground. I’ll be writing about the Collection at a future date. Late autumn had left the trees not entirely leafless, so it wasn’t a bad time to take a quick tour and see some of the unusual mulberry trees in the Collection, including Morus alba venosa, with its distinctive yellow-veins and small leaves, or Morus alba ‘Itoguwa’ ‘Nuclear Blast’ also known as the dwarf twisted or threadleaf mulberry, which originated in Japan. Although the Collection is in the grounds of Buckingham Palace, the northwest corner of which formed part of James I’s Mulberry Garden in the 17th century, the oldest mulberry in the Collection is about 100 years old.
Black mulberry at Hogarth House in 2012 - the garden has been completely re-landscaped and will re-open in 2020
Finally, last week, I went with Andrew Stuck, of the Museum of Walking, to Hogarth House, to preview the new garden layout and discuss possibilities of hosting events there for the Third Urban Tree Festival next May, by which time the garden should be open to the public. The star feature of the garden is a 300 year-old black mulberry, which pre-dates Hogarth’s time there and would have been part of a walled orchard on the site, before the house was built.