The black mulberry (Morus nigra) is an attractive spreading tree, with luscious fruits looking like elongated raspberries or blackberries which ripen in August and September, staining ground and fingers with its inky red fruit. The berries are rarely found in shops as the fruit is so delicate and will not travel, but it can be seen in many ancient gardens and deserves to be more widespread, not least because of its delicious flavour and its beauty but also because of its accidental place in our history.
The mulberry was probably introduced into Britain by the Romans and is mentioned in many early books and records. However it was King James I who personally brought about its widespread planting in gardens up and down England - but that was largely due to a case of mistaken identity and the failed attempt by the King to launch a silk industry in England.
By the late fifteenth century both Italy and France had established their own silk industry, weaving the luxurious and highly sought after fabric from the cocoons of the silkworm. King James I, seeing their success, was also keen to promote these new commercial activities in Britain and in 1609 he wrote to all the English counties requiring all landowners to buy and plant 10,000 mulberry trees the following year at a cost of 3 farthings for each plant or six shillings for a hundred. At the same time he encouraged the publication of two treatises on how to cultivate them entitled ‘The perfect use of Silk-wormes and their benefit’, and ‘Instructions for the increasing of mulberie trees’.
However, the trees planted on the continent to provide the food source for the silkworms were the white mulberry (Morus alba). Although James’ advisors would have known this they considered the black mulberry to be hardier and more suited to the British climate (which at that time was considerably colder - the first River Thames Frost Fair was in 1607). They did not realise quite how picky those silkworms are, and the fateful decision was taken to import the black mulberry. As a consequence the silk industry foundered before it had begun, but the legacy of the mulberry tree can be seen in many old gardens around the country and deserves remembering and reviving.