17th July 2016

On our second Morus Londinium walk, about a dozen of us explored the heritage of mulberry trees in Deptford and Greenwich – with some unexpected fruit treats on the way.

See the route here.

Mulberry trees in Deptford and Greenwich have historical links dating back to at least the 16th century, when Greenwich Palace (Placentia) was the favourite palace – and birthplace - of Elizabeth I. According to Joan Thirsk, in her fascinating book Alternative Agriculture, a History from the Black Death to the Present Day, Elizabeth ordered a “fair seat” to be made to fit around the trunk of a mulberry tree at Greenwich in 1598-9, so that she could enjoy its shade.

Greenwich Palace around 1554-57, by Antonius van den Wyngaerde

A decade or so later, James I of England and VI of Scotland, and his consort, Anne of Denmark, established a mulberry plantation at Greenwich to provide leaves to feed the silkworms needed for his English silk project. In 1609, to get the project off the ground, James had written letters to his Lord Lieutenants, offering the landed gentry mulberry saplings “…at the rate of three farthings a plant, or at six shillings the hundred containing five score plants”, or more affordable packets of mulberry seeds for the less well-off, so that they could establish plantations to feed tens of thousands of silkworms.

Around 100,000 saplings were imported from Languedoc (France) for the project. All, it seems, were black mulberries, even though it was well known at the time that, although they will feed on black mulberry leaves, silkworms thrive better on the leaves of white mulberries, which have a longer growing season and contain more of the nutrients they need. It may have been thought the hardy black mulberries were better suited to England’s northerly climate.

Although there is no trace of the Greenwich plantation today, it would presumably have contained several hundred trees, if not thousands, like James’s celebrated Mulberry Garden on a 4-acre plot in St James’s Park (now a corner of Buckingham Palace gardens and part of Green Park). Meanwhile, Anne of Denmark planted mulberries at the Royal Palace at Oatlands in Surrey (now a luxury hotel). Just up the hill from Greenwich, in the grounds of Charlton House, Sir Adam Newton, tutor to James I’s son, the Prince of Wales, also apparently planted mulberries for James’s silk project. A single, sprawling black mulberry survives today, claimed to be from this period.

The veteran black mulberry in the Queen’s Orchard in Greenwich Park, which we visited at the end of our walk, is also possibly a survivor from the 17th century, although its relationship to the lost mulberry plantation is unclear and even the Orchard is not easily located on some old maps. The tree, standing on top of a mound in the centre of the Orchard, spreads majestically upwards and outwards, covering a large area. It still bears large fruit and appears to be surviving well, despite the thick undergrowth of wild flowers, nettles and grasses around the near-horizontal branches. The volunteers managing the Orchard have plans to clear this away, but it is just one of several jobs on their list.

The Queen's Orchard doesn't appear at its present site on this 1809 map, but could be one of the plots of land in the northeast corner (left) and the black mulberry, that has a good crop of fruit but is showing signs of stress with the dense undergrowth (right).

White mulberries galore!

We often hear the black mulberry described as the “wrong” mulberry. It may have been wrong for the silk industry, but this particular species has been planted continuously in England since Roman times for its succulent, juicy fruit, its picturesque, spreading profile and its shade. And there may be as many deliberate plantings of black mulberries in England (for their fruit and decorative value) as there are left-overs from a failed silk industry. Even so, the “right” mulberries for silk - white mulberries - are rare in Britain and veteran trees non-existent, unlike on the Continent, where they abound, or in USA where they have become an invasive pest since they were imported in the 17th and 18th centuries.

However, on the other side of Greenwich Palace, in the grounds of what is now the University of Greenwich’s Dreadnought Building, there are 14 white mulberries (out of an original 16), of different varieties, planted in 2000 by the Worshipful Company of Fruiterers to mark the Millennium.  There is also a much older black mulberry and the stump of another, which still shows signs of life.

Although some of the trees are presently inaccessible because of construction work, they can be seen from College Road and the fruit can even be picked by climbing on the railings. There is also a handful along the path to the right of the building, just inside the iron gates and easily accessible.

The leaves of the white mulberry are typically indented, with lobes and are much glossier than those of the black mulberry. But there is great variation in leaf form, sometimes on the same tree.

Unlike the Queen’s Orchard black mulberry, and another, younger one by the cricket pitch in Greenwich Park, these white mulberries (Morus alba) are deliberately meant to evoke the lost plantation and James’s silk project. The leaves are thinner, glossier and more tender than those of the black mulberry, which can be coarse and hairy underneath. They even look more appetising!

As we walked along the row of trees, it soon became apparent that there were different varieties, if not species or sub-species of white mulberry here. Indeed, while there are essentially no cultivars or varieties of black mulberry, there are at least 16 distinct kinds of white mulberry, and over 120 named cultivars, though many of them refer to the same plant. Most of the 35 mulberries in the National Mulberry Collection at Buckingham Palace are varieties or cultivars of the white mulberry, sometimes with very different leaf forms.

The leaf shapes of the white mulberry can be very different from one variety to another.

The fruit of the white mulberry isn’t known for its taste, which is possibly why, if they were planted for a silk industry, they would have been grubbed out long ago when the venture fizzled out.  This has been the case in several parts of the country, such as Chelsea in the 18th century, not to mention Lullingstone Silk Farm in Dorset, where white mulberries were planted, but none have been preserved. But the white/black, edible/unpalatable contrast isn’t so simple.

Iranian friends have mentioned two kinds of mulberry growing back home – Shah-tut which is the edible, purple kind (Morus nigra), and Tut which remains white when ripe (Morus alba). But, to add a generous pinch of confusion, they also talk of the white fruit turning pink and dark purple. Ella Hashimi, of the Urban Orchard Project, who joined our walk, told me that her Iranian grandmother has similar stories and remembers dried white mulberries being sold in food markets. 

We were able to get first-hand experience on our walk, though, as some fruit was already ripe, even though it was still the beginning of the season. The ripe white mulberry fruit (tut) is perfectly edible, but has no particular taste and is not juicy.  However, the dark fruit on some other varieties of white mulberry (such as Morus alba multicaulis or Philippine mulberry) are, we can confirm, good to eat, rather like a ripe blackberry, yet are not so juicy or tasty as the black mulberry.

Some varieties of white mulberry have fruit that stays white when ripe (hence the name). This kind is rather tasteless (left) and others have fruit which turns purple and is sweet-tasting, though not nearly as juicy as the black mulberry (right).

Earlier on our walk we had visited a dwarf weeping white mulberry (Morus alba pendula) in the grounds of St Nicholas’ church in Deptford, which was also in fruit. The small dark drupes (clusters of tiny individual fruits) were just turning from pink to black and, again, the ripe fruit tasted very good, which was a surprise not least of all, to me. The church and churchyard are definitely worth exploring, too. The murdered playwright Christopher Marlowe is buried here. And there is a small carving in the church by Grinling Gibbons, the master wood carver whose work adorns St Paul’s cathedral, Hampton Court and Windsor castle. The 17th century diarist John Evelyn, who lived down the road at Sayes Court in Deptford (see below) befriended the then unknown craftsman and introduced him to the King. His fortune was made…

Dwarf weeping white mulberry (Morus alba pendula) in the grounds of St Nicholas’ church, Deptford. The dark fruit start to ripen mid-July and taste good.

Back to black

As I’m describing this walk backwards, let’s end where we actually started, in Sayes Court Park, Deptford.  The tentacular black mulberry here is the tree that started me on this whole project eight years ago. Since then it has, sadly, lost a couple of limbs and is decidedly skewed to one side of the circular railing that protects it.

Sayes Court black mulberry in 2010. It has since lost the limb that can be seen in the background.

The Sayes Court mulberry in 2011.

The branch on the left of the Sayes Court mulberry has broken off and is now dead (left), and in mid-July the fruit in an exposed, south-facing part of the tree was nearly ripe (right).

The story of this tree has been told in a few places, not least Karen Liljenberg’s meticulous and fascinating blog, London’s Lost Garden, which is a model of scholarly research. She has spent several years tracing the history of the tree, as well as trying to preserve the site of John Evelyn’s famous garden at Sayes Court from developers. This effort sadly failed, despite mobilising the Mayor’s office and the local community.

It turns out that the tree we see today is not one planted by Evelyn, but could well be a second or third generation tree from seeds of one that stood on or near the present site.  We know Evelyn had a mulberry in his garden, as it is marked with an ‘x’ on a careful map he had drawn up and which is in the British Library.  And there may have been mulberries on the site before he took up residence. According to Karen’s latest research, he also tried to grow white mulberries from seed and recommended them for the silk industry plantations. I will devote an entire piece to this tree and its heritage in the coming weeks.

Article and pictures by Peter Coles

Visit the Sayes Court mulberry
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