3rd August 2016

Without cutting down an old tree, the only way to establish its age is often through careful documentary research. In this fascinating article, Karen Liljenberg describes the detailed detective work she has carried out over several years to trace the true identity of an old mulberry tree in Sayes Court Park, Deptford, once part of the home of John Evelyn, the 17th century diarist and author of the definitive book on arboriculture, Sylva.

In the middle of Sayes Court Park, Deptford, is a gnarled and weather-beaten old mulberry tree. Its bare and wizened boughs in winter seem almost to be struggling to keep themselves clear of the ground, as if afraid of subsiding into the sump of history.

I was first drawn to this tree in 2005, shortly after moving into the area. Local legend claims it was planted by Tsar Peter the Great of Russia in the late seventeenth century, while he was studying ship-building at the Royal dockyard nearby. I was intrigued. Could it really have survived three hundred years of gradual urban encroachment?

My research soon revealed the Sayes Court Park mulberry to be a pointer to a much bigger and more astonishing story than I could have imagined.

It was here (and over the fence in what is now Convoys Wharf) that John Evelyn, the seventeenth century diarist and polymath, created his renowned and beautiful Sayes Court Garden, a horticultural tour-de-force visited by the learned and the aristocratic elite, including King Charles II. Could the mulberry possibly have witnessed that royal visit? Or could it even have been put there by Tsar Nicholas, as the tale went?

I examined the park carefully, but found no visible signs of the original garden. The planting and layout appeared to be low-maintenance relics of the nineteen-fifties, with no traces of the parterre, bowling-green, thickly-wooded groves, orchard, or any of the other features meticulously recorded in Evelyn's 1653 garden design.  

The claim that Peter the Great planted the tree goes back at least to the mid-nineteenth century. Cunningham’s 1850 Handbook of London refers to “a tree said to have been planted by Peter the Great when working in this country as a shipwright”.

On the other hand, Nathan Dews’s 1883 History of Deptford quotes an unnamed 1833 work by one Alfred Davis that described presumably the same tree as follows: "A forlornly looking, ragged mulberry tree, standing at the bottom of Czar Street, was the last survivor of the thousands of arborets planted by “sylva” Evelyn in the gardens and grounds surrounding his residence at Deptford.” Planted by Evelyn, not by Peter the Great, note! [1] In any case, the Peter story is still alive and well: in 2013, reporting that the tree had lost a bough that had been rotting for some time, the South London Press referred to it as “Peter the Great’s tree”, trotting out once again this persistent legend.

Peter the Great an unlikely gardener

Personally, however, I think it is extremely dubious. Peter showed little inclination towards anything other than wrecking the garden during his short lease of Sayes Court in 1698. There is the oft-recounted story of the tsar being pushed by his rowdy chums in a wheelbarrow back and forth through the garden's massive holly hedge; its details may be apocryphal, but it probably paints a truthful overall picture. Peter and his "right nasty"[2] entourage caused so much documented damage, in fact, that Evelyn was granted substantial compensation from the Treasury once he had left. So in my opinion, the notion of Peter-the-mulberry-planter probably conflates the lingering memory of Peter’s famous visit with the tree that later became emblematic of the lost garden.

Once the rest of the garden had gone, a single surviving tree would inevitably become a potent talisman of what had been lost, gradually accruing greater poignancy as the site around it became more and more ravaged by development. Dews mentions that in his time a fragment of the mulberry was kept by the Evelyns’ agent at their estate office on Evelyn St. Were people helping themselves to bits of the old tree as souvenirs, or had parts of it started to rot and drop off even back then?

The scavenging went on even at the highest level: a piece of the tree was taken and used as part of the design of the main floor of the New Coal Exchange, constructed between 1847 to 1849 in Lower Thames Street. It formed the blade of the dagger in the city of London’s shield. Unfortunately, the New Coal Exchange, despite being Grade II listed, was demolished in 1962.

Digging into the archives

To return now to the main question: could the mulberry have been part of Evelyn’s planting? Does the age of the tree support this idea, and does its siting match the garden’s original layout?

If its annual growth rings could be counted, we’d know its exact age – but, short of hacking it down (unthinkable, of course), we can't do that until it dies. It's an imprecise business trying to estimate age just by girth and appearance, but compared with the mulberry at nearby Charlton House, which dates from 1608, it does seem similar.

The Sayes Court mulberry is probably sited in the area formerly known as "the Broomefield". Outside the garden proper in its first phase, this lay west of the Great Orchard, which was planted with “300 fruit trees of the best sorts mingled”. Perhaps including mulberries?

By 1692 the garden had subsumed the Broomefield, now divided into large square plots edged with unspecified trees. One part of the former Great Orchard had morphed into a grove divided with geometric walks, while another had become a semicircular bowling green, bordered by sub-triangular segments planted with fruit trees and bushes. It is possible that the western segment, the part closest to our mulberry tree, consisted of fruit trees retained from the orchard, in which case there could have been mulberries close by.

My own view is that its situation means the mulberry could either have been in Evelyn’s garden, or be a direct descendant of one that was.

Certainly there were mulberries in the garden even before Evelyn arrived. Letters from Christopher Brown to his son Richard Brown (Evelyn’s future father-in-law) describe their garden at Sayes Court in March and June 1642, recording that the easterly winds that year damaged the damask roses, the walnut trees and the mulberries.

Probably it was a survivor from this earlier garden that Evelyn noted in the key to his 1653 plan as "the mulberry tree at the mark x", some distance away from the present tree, on an island in the lake at the northern edge of the garden.  He also included mulberries among the fruits that the gardener must pick when ripe and take to the house-keeper in his "Directions for the Gardiner at Says-Court", written 1686. 

DNA analysis reveals a new twist

But what kind of mulberries did the Evelyn family enjoy? Black?  White? Or maybe something in-between? There is a 1670 letter to Evelyn from the minister of St Paul’s church in Hackney, asking if he knows how or by whom the seeds of the white mulberry can be obtained. There is also direct evidence that Evelyn did indeed have white mulberries at Sayes Court, brought to him from Languedoc. In his Dendrologia, printed as part of the fourth edition of Sylva, he praises the mulberry and then adds:

“But it is not here I would recommend our ordinary black fruit bearers, though that be likewise worth the propagation; but that kind which is call’d the white mulberry (which I have had sent me out of Languedoc)…"  He continues at length about how to grow the white mulberry, including the suggestion of improving it by grafting it onto black mulberry.

Could the Sayes Court Park mulberry be a product of these imports and experiments? As it happens, Oxford University plant scientist Barrie Juniper, author of The Tradescants’ Orchard, contacted me a while back to confirm that it is a rather mysterious specimen from the genetic point of view. 

Barrie informed me that, generally, the black mulberry is, quote: “wildly polyploidy”. In practical terms, this means that it is sterile; it can’t reproduce from seed.

But Barrie's Oxford colleague Andrew Honey, conservation and collection officer in the Bodleian Library, mentioned to him one day that he was successfully growing two saplings from seed he’d collected in 1997 from the berries of the Sayes Court mulberry tree.  

So, if not a Morus nigra, despite its lovely large black fruits, what is the Sayes Court tree? Barrie offered to arrange to test its DNA to find out.  

The results showed there was a high amount of DNA present, so it has to be a polyploid of some nature. On the other hand, as Andrew has demonstrated, it’s clearly fertile. Barrie speculated that, along with the standard black mulberry, some other mutants, of intermediate chromosome counts, were around in the seventeenth century; some of them partly fertile. If so, the Sayes Court tree could be an intermediate, high count, half-way white to black mulberry. Although Barrie believes that this specimen is not the original Evelyn, but a second or third generation seedling "more or less on the same site” only another test to determine the exact chromosome count could settle this question for sure.

Meanwhile, although both of Andrew’s saplings sadly succumbed to Thameside flooding, I’m pleased to report that there is a new little one growing in my own back garden.

The Sayes Court Park mulberry continues to fruit generously every year, and its berries are indisputably fertile. Yet, despite this iconic tree's historic significance, it now faces an uncertain future, overshadowed by the looming redevelopment of Convoy’s Wharf. Evelyn's personal motto was "omnia explorate, meliora retinete" "Explore everything; keep the best". Unfortunately, such an approach is a million miles away from that of the developers, Hong-Kong based Hutchison Whampoa. Given the green light by Boris Johnson against the will of the local people and council, the scale of the devastation that they are about to wreak on the site of Sayes Court Garden makes Tsar Peter's vandalism pale into insignificance. The fact that the mulberry tree is in the public park, not Convoy's Wharf itself, may offer it some protection. Let's hope so.

The full story of Karen Liljenberg’s research, as it unfolded over the years, can be read in her excellent blog, Sayes Court -- London’s Lost Garden. This meticulous research has been a constant inspiration for our work at Morus Londinium.

[1] Of course, the present mulberry tree is not at the bottom of Czar Street, but of Sayes Court St., but perhaps we shouldn’t expect too much geographical exactness – it surely is the same tree that we see today.

[2] As a servant who witnessed the goings-on described them in a letter to Evelyn.

Article by Karen Liljenberg.

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