Were mulberries first introduced to England by James I in the 17th century?


Perhaps the most common misunderstanding about our mulberry heritage is that they were first introduced to England by James I of England and VI of Scotland in the early 17th century, when he set about establishing a silk industry to rival that of Italy, France and Spain. In fact, black mulberries (Morus nigra) have been grown in England since Roman times. They were found in medieval monastery gardens and were a prized fruit for Tudor banquets in the houses of the aristocracy. So, our mulberry heritage goes back, more or less uninterrupted, to at least the 6th century CE. But James I did do more than anyone, before or since, to promote the planting of mulberries in Britain.

Did James I plant the "wrong" kinds of mulberry

Yes and no

In 1609, James I wrote to all his Lord lieutenants, offering them 10,000 mulberry saplings "at the rate of three farthings a plant, or at six shillings the hundred containing five score plants" or, alternatively, more affordable packets of mulberry seeds, so that they could establish plantations to feed thousands of silkworms. This would become the basis of an English silk industry to rival that of Italy and France. Silk was worth more than gold, by weight, so, by establishing a home-grown silk industry he would not only save the country a fortune on imported silk, but could sell it and get rich.

It seems that the species James's horticultural adviser imported was the black mulberry (Morus nigra), a species that is thought to originate in what was once the Persian Empire, including modern day Iran, Syria and Turkey, the Caucasus and around the Caspian Sea. Here the tree is grown for its succulent fruit and shade. The silkworm, though, which feeds only on mulberry leaves, thrives best on the leaves of the white mulberry (Morus alba and related species), which is native to China, India and Japan. And it is the white mulberry that was planted in Italy, France and Spain as the basis for their successful silk industries.

It was perhaps an odd choice, then, to plant black mulberries for silk, especially since it was well known at the time - to James and his advisers- that silkworms produce finer silk in greater quantity when fed on white mulberry leaves. However, silkworms will feed on black mulberry leaves, though the silk they produce is coarser. And the first silk production in Macedonia and Greece in the Middle Ages probably used the native black mulberry. So, it may have been a deliberate choice by James, as the black mulberry will grow readily in Britain's cool, damp weather - even in Scotland - whereas the white prefers a sunnier, drier climate.

So England's home-grown silk industry may not have failed because of the wrong kind of mulberry. There were healthy mulberry orchards in Greenwich, Charlton House, and on land that is now part of Buckingham Palace and Green Park. It may have been that the silkworms didn't hatch in sufficient quantity, or were hit by disease, for example. After all, James also tried to establish a silk industry in Virginia, in his American colony. White mulberries were imported and grown alongside the native red mulberry - which silkworms love - and the climate there is much more like that of southern France. But the silk industry still didn't take off.

Also, the English silk industry didn't really fail. It actually thrived well into the 18th century, capitalising on the skills of refugee Huguenot weavers who settled in London's East End, fleeing religious persecution after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Successful silk mills sprouted up in different parts of England. But the weavers used imported raw silk from China and elsewhere.

Were the old mulberry trees we find today planted in the 17th century?

Yes and no

One aim of the Morus londinium project is to research London's old mulberry trees and find out more about their history. There are a few surviving Jacobean - and maybe even Elizabethan - mulberry trees in England. The oldest is thought to be a black mulberry in Syon Park, which was planted in 1548. There is a black mulberry in the West Garden of Hatfield House (Hertfordshire) which is said to have been planted by Elizabeth I before she became queen. But it is more likely to have been planted around 1611 by John Tradescant the Elder, when he was appointed Head Gardener by Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, who rebuilt the house. A veteran mulberry at Charlton House is likely to have been planted around the same time (somewhere between 1607-1612). A black mulberry in the Queen's Orchard (Greenwich Park) is about the same age. And there are black mulberries in Cheyne Walk, on the site of Henry VIII's Manor House that could be 16th century.

The Fountain Court mulberry (Photo: Peter Coles)

Black mulberry trees look much older than they are, tending to grow thick trunks and lean over. The two venerable trees in Fountain Court (Middle Temple, off Fleet Street), for example, were planted for Queen Victoria's Jubilee in 1887 and were still spindly specimens in postcards of the 1920s.

What is the origin of the nursery rhyme "Here we go round the mulberry bush"?

First of all, the mulberry is a tree, not a bush. It often grows to 8 metres or more (over 20 feet). In China, where it is grown in plantations for its leaves, it can be regularly pruned to keep it small and easier to harvest. As regards the nursery rhyme, it is often said to refer to a black mulberry tree in the yard of Wakefield Prison in West Yorkshire, where female prisoners used to exercise. But there is no evidence to support this. An older version of the rhyme refers to a "bramble bush", and a similar rhyme exists in Scandinavia, where the bush is a juniper.

What is the famous story about how the mulberry got its dark red colour?

In Book IV of his Metamorphoses, the Latin author, Ovid, writing at the end of the 1st century BCE, tells the story of two lovers, the handsome Pyramus, and the beautiful Thisbe. They lived next door to each other, but their parents forbade them from marrying. Still, they used to whisper to each other through a crack in the wall between their two houses. One day they decided to elope and arranged to meet secretly at night, under a mulberry tree, whose fruit was then snow-white. Thisbe got there first, but was frightened by a lioness whose jaws were still dripping with blood from its last freshly-killed meal. Thisbe ran off, dropping her white veil. The lioness found it and ripped it to shreds, angry to have missed another meal. When Pyramus arrived, Thisbe was not there. But on the ground he saw the blood-stained veil of his beloved. Thinking the lioness had eaten her, he killed himself with his own sword. When Thisbe plucked up the courage to come back, she found Pyramus dying on the ground. Understanding what had happened she took his sword and killed herself with it, too, but not before putting a spell on the tree that would mark their tragic death for ever, turning the white fruit to blood red. And this is exactly what happens to the fruit every year.

William Shakespeare parodied this story in the plot for A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Where can I find out more on mulberry trees?

You can find out more throughout this website, as well as at the sites linked below. The silk worm page offers several links specifically related to sericulture. There are also various publications, including The Material Culture of Mulberry Trees by Stephen Bowe, whilst a limited edition book, The Queen's mulberries by Mark Lane et al, is available to view on request at the British Library.

If you have further questions, please leave a comment below.

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