Dulwich Trees Profile

The Mulberry (Morus nigra) by Judy Marshall

On the way up the path to the front entrance of Dulwich Picture Gallery, on the left hand side, you will pass a mulberry tree. That is the one I am writing about, although there is another one hiding between the corner of the building and a huge magnolia. At the time of writing they are still looking very wintry, as they are one of the last trees to come into leaf.

The black mulberry comes from the Morus family which includes 12 species from temperate and subtropical regions of the northern hemisphere; principally the Caucasus mountains and Nepal. It was probably introduced to Britain early in the 16th century but opinions vary. However it is likely from archaeological evidence that the Roman army of occupation also introduced it much earlier, unless the soldiers were fed on dried mulberries. Certainly the classical writers were aware of mulberries. Britain also has the white mulberry which comes from China and is the favourite diet of silkworms, but it is much rarer here as the climate does not suit it. In 1607 James 1 ordered the planting of mulberry trees to encourage a home grown silk industry, however it was not realized that silk worms prefer white mulberry, and the trees which were planted at such places as Oatlands Palace and Hatfield were Morus nigra.

There are records of some very old mulberry specimens, though some of their dates are challenged. There was a tree at Drapers’ Hall in the City of London which is reputed to have lived from 1364-1969. At Syon House there are some ancient specimens from Persia of a more bushy shape than normal, which may have been the inspiration for the nursery rhyme “Here we go round the mulberry bush.”

I don’t have a date for the Picture Gallery mulberry, though it looks very ancient, mainly because it has a hollow trunk and is propped up with a stake. On looking more closely you will see that the trunk has been filled in with concrete, this was an old practice used to stabilize the tree. Exactly the same was done with a specimen at Downe House. That one is thought to be over 200 years old, as Darwin refers to it when he moved into the house.

However, mulberry trees are often not as old as they look because of a curious method of propagation used owing to their ability to sprout very easily from a chunk of wood. “Truncheons” were planted - these were lengths of wood about 1.5metres set about half a metre in the ground to make a trunk which then sprouts branches. It is a rather unsatisfactory practice as the trunk can be a lot older than the branches and account for the hollow boles. The reason for its use, as J.C. Loudon pointed out in 1875, was that you got fruit the following year. This was obviously preferable to waiting 20 years for the first fruit. Nowadays you can buy trees ready for planting, but they may take 10 years to become fully established.

The mulberry at the Picture Gallery is in the traditional place - on a lawn. There are many such trees on college closes, vicarage lawns and in old walled gardens. Basically this could be because of the ripe fruits dropping to the ground when they at the most palatable state for eating - that is very ripe. It is easier to gather them from a nice soft lawn, and also does not mess up a paved surface.

If we are to believe Christopher Hirst’s article in The Independent in May 2000, the mulberry tree nearly came to grief during the Gallery’s reconstruction. He quotes Desmond Shawe-Taylor, the previous Director, as saying that the architect Rick Mather had intended to “complete the quadrangle with a pergola-like structure reflecting his glass and bronze construction”. This would have involved the loss of the mulberry tree. “Nature and Art were brought directly into confrontation. Eventually we decided that the quadrangle already makes such a strong statement that the continuation was not required. Anyway, if we’d decided to chop down the tree, we’d only have 20 Friends of Dulwich Gallery lying down in front of it.”

Mulberries can be eaten raw with cream or cooked using recipes for raspberries or blackberries in summer pudding etc. The very strong colour of the juice means that it has been used to improve the colour of cider or even wine. Pliny in the first century AD mentions how the juice stains your hands. Mrs Beeton gives a recipe for preserving them, for which they “should be ripe, but not soft enough to break into pulp.” Elizabeth David has recipes for mulberry jam and jelly. Certainly jam made from the Picture Gallery mulberry, cooked by Stella Benwell, has been sold at the summer fairs, and people continue to pick them.