Woven into English history since it was brought here by the Romans, the fruit of the mulberry tree is a rare treat to savour, and almost never seen in shops due to its delicate nature and poor storing qualities. Mulberries are to be enjoyed fresh! Cultivated by ancient civilisations in both the East and West, mulberry seeds found in excavations in London suggest that the Romans certainly weren’t willing to forego the succulent fruits that would never have survived the journey from their homeland.
In addition to the tempting berries, which bruise easily and stain the hand of all those who dare try to pick them, the leaf of the mulberry has long been celebrated for its healing properties and is widely used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Silkworms favour the leaves of Morus alba (white mulberry) which is native to China, and it’s no coincidence that China is the world’s largest producer of both mulberry and silk (sericulture – the production of silk – first began in China around 2700 BC.)
Back in England, Morus nigra (black mulberry) was commonly planted in medieval monasteries and abbeys. Elizabethan nobles grew mulberries to impress their friends at banquets. In the 17th century, King James I had 10,000 black mulberry trees planted in London with the intent of establishing a silk industry to compete with France and Italy. This venture never took off – maybe because silkworms prefer white mulberries, which also produces a finer silk. Or maybe…
London continues to have a fine, though often hidden, mulberry population today. The National Collection of Mulberries is held at Buckingham Palace by Her Majesty The Queen and is made up of 29 species. Morus Londinium is a wonderful resource which has been working to trace old forgotten mulberry trees and uncover their stories all around the capital. There’s not quite the 10,000 from King James’ time, but the map shows the trees identified to date in London and throughout the UK – including two in Norwich! (One at St Augustines and the other in the old monastery courtyard behind St Andrews Hall.) Cambridge is also home to some wonderful old mulberries, you can read their stories here.
Further north, HMP Wakefield in Yorkshire is believed to be the origin of the classic children’s nursery rhyme, “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush” (1840). It is said that female prisoners invented the rhyme as they took their daily exercise around the mulberry tree in the prison yard. The 19th century tree sadly died in 2017, although it is to be replaced with cuttings of trees which were taken from the original in the 1980s.
To do well, mulberries require a sunny, sheltered site. They tolerate most moderately fertile soils if well-drained, but deep, moisture-retentive soil is best. Trees should be staked at planting time to enable the brittle roots to establish well. Older trees may eventually need supports under any wide-spreading branches. At harvest time, place a large sheet under the tree and shake – ripe fruit will fall. (Watch out the birds don’t get there before you!) You may want to wear gloves to avoid staining your hands. Feed trees in late winter (fish, blood and bone is ideal) and mulch with well-rotted manure or other organic matter in spring. Mulberries need little pruning – just remove dead, broken or crossing branches in late autumn/winter (about a month after leaf fall is ideal – but not at other times of the year or the sap will ‘bleed’.)
We currently have five varieties of mulberry for sale, from £11.80 – £48.99.
MULBERRY ‘MOJO BERRY’ (SYN. ‘CHARLOTTE RUSSE’)
This dwarf, compact mulberry is great for patio pots and small gardens. Over forty years in development and winner of RHS Chelsea Flower Show Plant of the Year 2017. Slow-growing, to a height of 1.5m x 1.25m. ‘Mojo Berry’ flowers in May/June and fruits on both old and new wood from a young age. Harvest in flushes June – September.
MORUS ‘CHELSEA’ (SYN. ‘KING JAMES I’)
The traditional English variety! Crops early in life with large, dark red/black, succulent fruits with a rich flavour in August. The decorative leaves make it especially attractive. ‘Chelsea’ comes from a 17th century tree in what is now the Chelsea Physic Garden. Cuttings were taken from the very last specimen before it was taken out to make room for an air raid shelter during the second world war… and so the variety survived.
MORUS ‘GIANT FRUIT’ (SYN. PAKISTAN’)
As its name suggests, ‘Giant Fruit’ produces heavy crops of black fruits which are 2-3 times the size of normal mulberries. Ready to pick in August. Said to have originated in Islamabad, Pakistan. Eat fruit fresh or in puddings and jams etc. The large leaves make it great to add tropical effect to your garden.
MORUS ALBA PENDULA (WHITE WEEPING MULBERRY)
A delightful weeping tree with branches hanging down to the ground – often grown for ornamental rather than fruiting purposes. Height and spread in 10 years approx. 3m x 2m. Fruits of the white mulberry are smaller and more acidic than black mulberries – they start off white and then ripen to reddish-pink.
MORUS NIGRA (BLACK MULBERRY)
This excellent, long-lived variety has good quality deep purple-black fruits and the prestigious RHS Award of Garden Merit. A medium-sized tree, it has a low spreading, dome-like habit and the gnarled branches give even youngish trees a wonderful aged look.