The Mystery of the Chelsea Mulberry

July 27, 2016 1:05 pm Published by

On Sunday the Telegraph published an article on their website all about mulberry trees which mentioned that saplings propagated from the James I specimen which once stood in the Garden are still available to schools and non-profit groups. So we were intrigued to discover more about the history of the mulberry trees in the Garden. We have a wonderful volunteer librarian at the Garden, Liz, who always produces archive material on any period of the history of the Garden and she was able to provide us with some fascinating letters and articles which shed some light on this story!

Mulberry in the Garden

Taken from Drewitt’s book about the Garden.

It is believed that James I brought black mulberry trees over to England so that he could establish a silk industry to rival that of the French. However he was wrongly advised, possibly intentionally, to purchase black mulberry trees instead of white mulberry trees which are in fact the preferred natural food source for the silk worms. Needless to say his project failed! It is rumored that one of the first black mulberry trees, and possibly the one to which all mulberry trees in this country descend from, was planted next to Swan Walk in Chelsea. A spot which would, later that century, become Chelsea Physic Garden. However the validity of this claim has been questioned!


Winston Churchill planting a mulberry tree sapling on his 80th birthday.

‘The Apothecaries’ Garden’  by F. Dawtrey Drewitt, published in 1922, states that two mulberry trees were still flourishing in the Garden at this time. Drewitt also comments on the plethora of mulberry trees in Chelsea because of the failed attempts to cultivate silk worms. It seems reasonable to believe that one of these trees is one of those planted at the request of James I. However unfortunately in 1939 one of the trees was removed to make room for an air raid shelter. It is believed the Lord and Lady Salisbury, who lived on Swan Walk at this time, stepped in and contacted East Malling Research Station who took some cuttings of the tree. A sapling was grown from these cuttings which was later planted in the Salisbury’s garden on Swan Walk by none other than Winston Churchill, who planted the tree on his 80th Birthday in 1954.

Kings James I saplings are still available, and a project is currently taking place to plant 100 trees across London to regenerate the mulberry population of the city! Full details on the Morus Londinium website.

As with all the plants in the Garden we ask that, although it’s very tempting, please do not pick the mulberries from the mulberry tree by the Café . Their red juice stains so we know who has been picking!(Many of the plants in the Garden are highly poisonous which is why we do not permit picking of any plant material or fruit in the Garden.)

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