James I’s Ill-fated Mulberry Trees
The mulberry is a tall deciduous tree with spreading branches that produce berry-like fruits. Native to Persia and South Asia, they are the favoured food source for silkworms which then produce silk cocoons. When the fine strong threads of silk are unravelled, they can be spun and woven to produce luxurious silk fabrics.
It’s no wonder then that mulberry bushes became a desirable plant in England from the Middle Ages onwards. Ancient mulberries can be found in Stratford-upon-Avon and Shakespeare mentions them in several of his plays. He even planted a mulberry tree at his home, New Place. The tree became so famous that the later resident, Rev Francis Gastrell, became tired of the constant requests by tourists wanting to see it, so he chopped it down!
In 1609, King James I decided to develop a silk industry in London; jealous of the highly lucrative and monopolistic industries thriving in China, Italy and France. He ordered a four-acre garden in St James Park to be planted with mulberry bushes ready to feed his envisaged silkworm colony. He employed several “King’s Mulberry Men” to tend the plants in the gardens.
After taking advice from the French, King James imported 10,000 mulberry trees. Appealing to their patriotism, he also ordered landowners to follow his example and purchase and plant mulberry trees. All in all, some 100,000 saplings were planted across the country.
Unfortunately, his plans failed to produce the anticipated results. All of the saplings imported were the black-berried mulberry, Morus nigra, a native of Persia and prized for its delicious fruit. Instead, it is the leaves of the white-berried Morus alba from Asia that silkworms feed on. Perhaps it was an innocent mistake, or maybe the French decided to mislead the King and protect their own silk industry - who knows!
Although the King’s ambitious silkworm project failed, the mulberry trees in St James Park thrived and became a pleasure garden. Eventually they were dug up in preparation for the building of Buckingham Palace.
If you want to see a mulberry tree, there are still several around London, helped in part by the late 19th Century fad of planting them in the newly developed public parks that were springing up across the city. The Jacobean Charlton House has a heritage mulberry tree, grown from a cutting of the ill-fated mulberry trees planted by King James. The mulberry tree at Syon House predates the King’s ambitions. Planted in 1548, it is thought that it was used for medicinal purposes, supposedly to heal the liver and spleen, purge the belly and drive forth worms! There are also 40 mulberry trees in the gardens of Buckingham Palace. Perhaps as a reminder for the monarch to do their research thoroughly before investing in another ambitious plan? They make up the National Collection of Mulberries with 38 different species, although none date from the time of King James.