Mulberry Smuggling Monks

Buckingham Palace

One explanation of the nursery rhyme ‘here we go around the mulberry bush, on a cold and frosty morning’ is that such a tree was said to grow in the exercise yard at Wakefield prison. The provision of such delicious fresh fruit for convicts appears like an act of generosity rather out of character for the gaolers of old. Furthermore, mulberries have an ancient association with emperors and kings and not with the criminal classes.

There are three main species of mulberry commonly in cultivation: the black, the white and the red. The colour refers to the foliage as much as the fruit. All three are short trees not bushes, which produce separate clusters of either entirely male or female flowers, occasionally individual trees may produce only flowers of a single sex. The white mulberry is native to China where its leaves have been harvested to feed silkworms for more than 4,000 years. The black mulberry was originally from Western Asia, but has been grown for its fruit in Europe since pre Roman times. The red mulberry or American mulberry is a native of the eastern states of the US and is a relative new comer to cultivation.

The history of the mulberry in China is interwoven with that of silk. The empress Si-Ling-Chi is credited with its invention in 2,640 BC, after picking cocoons from a mulberry tree in the palace garden, she unravelled the stands and then spun them to make a robe for the emperor. For more than 2000 years the Chinese kept the secret of silk production under pain of death. In Europe fanciful ideas were proposed to explain the origin the ‘cloth of kings’. It was thought to be extracted from inside the bodies of exploding spiders, or spun from soil. Other theories claimed that it was produced from petals or from hairy leaves. Eventually of course the truth did emerge. According to tradition the secret of silkworm farming was stolen by the Japanese who established their own industry with mulberries, moth eggs and four Chinese girls all purloined from the mainland. The Indian approach was rather more enlightened. It is said that stems of mulberry and silkworms were carried to the sub-continent in the head-dress of a Chinese princess on route to her wedding to an Indian prince. The legend of its introduction into Europe is equally fanciful. Justinian the sixth century Emperor of Constantinople entrusted two monks with the task. After many years of toil the two ecclesiastical secret agents were successful in smuggling both mulberry cuttings and silkworm eggs out of China inside hollowed out walking sticks.

By the seventeenth century James I had become so anxious about the cost of silk imports, that he famously issued an edict encouraging the cultivation of mulberry trees and silkworm farming. Tens of thousands of trees were sold at three farthings per plant, or six shillings per five score. For a time a single tree could be rented, at a rate of a pound per year. Many of these now very old trees survive to this day, with hardly a stately home in England not claiming to have possessed one at some time.  The king himself purchased a four acres plot near to his palace at Westminster on which to plant mulberries. The site, which cost £935, is now occupied by the gardens of Buckingham Palace. The price included the cost of levelling the site, erecting a perimeter walling and planting the mulberries. Unfortunately the king appears to have been ill-advised because, according to legend, he was told that the white mulberry would not thrive in England, so across the land black mulberries were planted instead, but these are not favoured by silkworms causing the attempt to produce silk in Britain too collapse.

Another legend claims that in 1609 Shakespeare obtained a mulberry tree from the king’s Westminster garden, which he then planted in his own grounds in Stratford-on-Avon.  The tree thrived there until 1752 when the then owner of the house a Reverend Gastrell, chopped it down to discourage tourists. The timber from Shakespeare’s tree appears to have acquired some of the properties associated with that taken from the ‘true cross’ in that hundred of objects now claim to be made from it, in addition the botanic gardens at Kew claimed to have a descended of the same tree.

To this day mulberry silk is regarded as being of the finest quality and it is still smuggled out of China. Indian newspapers complain about the negative impact that this illicit trade has on local markets. Prices are also influenced by increased demand for sarees prior to the marriage seasons of November to January and March to May. So now is probably not a good time for the queen to be rejuvenating those old trees in the back garden.

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