#63 Mulberry




White Mulberry



Although there are some twelve species of the mulberry -- genus Morus of the family Moraceae, which includes figs-- the two most important are M. nigra, the black mulberry, thought to have originated in Persia and mostly grown for its dark purple fruit, and M. alba, white mulberry, native to East Asia, particularly China and Japan, grown for its leaves which are the only food of silkworms (Hogan 905). [1] According Peter Coles in his extensive history of the Mulberry, black mulberries “have been cultivated for so long that they are rarely found growing wild anywhere today, so it is uncertain where they originated’ (32), but they were well known to the Romans who enjoyed their fruit and therefore planted them near their camps, including Londinium around 43 CE


Black and white mulberries are not differentiated on the basis of the color of their fruit, as is often thought. Black mulberries are often solitary trees; rapidly growing, they tend “to develop a thick trunk with lumps, bumps and burrs, to lean or topple over” and so often look more ancient than they are (Coles 10, 13). Their leaves are thicker, wider, rounder, and hairier than those of the white mulberry; mature leaves are “broad and heart-shaped with a pointed tip and serrated edges” although new leaves can be irregularly lobed like those of figs (Coles 32). The tree also tends to be broad; growing to some forty feet high, the crown can be almost as wide as the tree is tall (Hogan 904). The fruit of black mulberries closely resembles that of elongated blackberries; starting out a pale red, they ripen to a dark purple color that is almost black.  The taste resembles that of wine, both tart and sweet.


White mulberry, on the other hand, is most often grown in plantations for ease of harvest to sustain silkworms. The tree itself is slightly shorter, more upright, and much more slender (Coles 36); the berries start out white and turn purplish, but they are much less tart, the sweet taste having even been called “insipid” (Coles 41). The leaves of white mulberry are narrower, thinner, and softer than those of the black variety to suit the developing jaws of young silkworms; indeed, one of the great art of sericulture (silk-making) is the delicate timing needed “to synchronize hatching of the [moth] eggs with the supply of fresh mulberry leaves” so that the young caterpillars will not “be unable to bite into and digest the tougher, fully developed leaves” (Coles 59).  Moths will feed on black mulberry leaves, but less successfully, and the silk they produce is coarser (Coles 9).


Historically, white mulberries did not grow anywhere in Europe before the fall of Constantinople in 1453 CE (Coles 40), so all classical references relate to M. nigra and mostly refer to the taste and color of the berries. While praising the fruit as a healthy dessert, the Roman poet Horace made note of the fragility of the berries, which almost dissolve when ripe, in his Satire 2.4:

His summers he in health shall spend,
Who of his dinner makes an end
With mulberries of blacker die,
Gather'd before the sun's too high. (ll. 21-4)

The color and softness of the berries is also an issue in the story of Pyramus and Thisbe in Book IV of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a proto Romeo and Juliet tale of mutual suicide where, finding the blood-stained scarf of his beloved, Pryamus throws himself on his sword, his spurting blood staining the white berries crimson. When his body is discovered by Thisbe, whose scarf only having been mauled by a lion, she flings herself on her lover’s sword, calling out to the gods to permanently change the color of the berries to the dark and mournful hue of death in memory of their sad fate (ll. 55-166; Humphries 85-6. Ref. by Gieseke 102). Pliny the Elder is responsible for the association of mulberries with wisdom, as he calls the tree “sapentissima arborum” in his Natural History, praising it for not risking its leaves until the danger of frost had passed (Geiske 102).


            After the Romans had brought black mulberries to England, they were frequently planted in monastery gardens, and when the monasteries were dissolved and taken over by wealthy courtiers they became a favorite treat at Tudor banquets, where being able to serve them became something of a status symbol since they had to be grown on site (Coles 99). The transition to the Stuart line with the accession of James I provoked even more interest in mulberries since he became somewhat obsessed with starting a local silk industry for which he imported thousands of trees. Fearing that white mulberries would be too fragile for the cold British climate, his distributors sold large numbers of black mulberries to many wealthy landowners, including some colleges at Cambridge (Coles 103); the famous horticulturist Tradescant bought and planted at least five hundred mulberries at Hatfield (Coles 104), and King James planted an extensive mulberry garden “in the grounds of St James’s Palace – on a site that corresponds to the northwest corner of the garden behind today’s Buckingham Palace and part of the adjacent Green Park” (Coles 101). Although these efforts at sericulture were largely a failure, they continued through the seventeenth and eighteenth century (Coles 108).


            The Tudor taste for mulberries is displayed in Shakespeare’s plays, where he concentrates on the sweetness of the fruits and the shade offered by the tree. In A Misummer Night’s Dream, Titania, queen of the fairies, tells her fairies to treat Bottom by feeding him with “with apricocks and dewberries,/ With purple grapes, green figs, and mulberries” (Act III, sc.i, ll. 172-3). Later, in the comic performance by the Mechanicals based on Ovid’s bloody tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, Thisbe tarrys “in mulberry shade” before killing herself with her lover’s dagger (Act V, sc i., l. 157). Later, in Coriolanus, Shakespeare echoes Horace’s awareness of the fragility of the mulberry when he has Volumnia counsel her ambitious son that he should be “humble as the ripest mulberry/ That will not hold the handling”  (Act XXXX). None of these references connect mulberries at all with silk, although a reference in Ben Jonson’s 1632 play The Magic Lady, does refer to a courtier who “feeds on mulberry leaves like a true silkworm” (qtd by Coles, 160).


            The efflorescence of mulberry trees at the beginning of the seventeenth century began an interesting tradition of association of the picturesque, gnarled monuments with leading British literary figures, including perhaps most famously, Shakespeare’s home at New Place.  According to the web site of a gin distillery located in Stratford-on-Avon, this tree was in fact part of King James’ sericulture campaign: “Shakespeare very famously planted a Mulberry tree in the gardens of his home ‘New Place’ in Stratford upon Avon following instruction from the palace in 1609 that all landowners should plant them in the hope of promoting a native silk industry.”[3]  The exact same year, according to Morus londinium, a web site that tracks famous British mulberry trees, a mulberry was planted in the Fellow’s garden of Christ Church College, which has long been named the “Milton Mulberry”; the fact that Milton was only a year old when it was put into the ground suggests that he was not the one who planted it, though it is likely that he would have known of its existence.[4]


            Shakespeare’s mulberry attracted so much sustained attention from literary pilgrims that in 1756 the then-current owner of New Place, one Reverend Gastrell, “became so fed up with strangers milling around his garden and breaking twigs off the famous mulberry, that he chopped it down, in what the eighteenth-century biographer James Boswell described as an act of ‘gothick barbarity’” (Coles 211).  The wood from the legendary tree was gathered up by local craftsmen and made into various memorial objects, including an intricately carved casket -- now in the British Museum -- that was given to the Shakespearean actor David Garrick in 1769 (Coles 210). William Cowper referred to both the mulberry tree and the relics it produced in his extremely long 1785 poem The Task:


The mulberry-tree was hung with blooming wreaths,

The mulberry-tree stood centre of the dance,

The mulberry-tree was hymned with dulcet airs,

And from his touchwood trunk the mulberry-tree

Supplied such relics as devotion holds

Still sacred, and preserves with pious care. (Book VI, ll. 685-90)


(See casket at https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/H_1864-0816-1).

Contemporary black mulberry in Stratford-on-Avon.


Mulberry trees were also associated with British Romantic poets.  Blake’s first biographer, Gilchrist, recorded that the young artist’s first spiritual vision was of a mulberry tree in Peckham Rye “filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.”[5] And the horizontal bulk of a mulberry tree, planted before the house was built, still occupies the front yard of the Keats House in Hampstead, propped up by a large stump.[6]


Woolf mentions mulberry trees a total of twenty times in her prose: most frequently in her essays where they often appear at great houses or as reminders of great men.  They first appear, for example, in the conclusion to her 1910 essay on Lady Hester Stanhope, where “lines of mulberry trees” are a sign of the imposition of order on the “thicket of brambles and roses” once surrounding her grave (E1 329).  In Woolf’s account of the limitations constraining the life of Lady Dorothy Nevill (1919, rev. 1925), our “first glimpse of the bars” surrounding her appears at a country house in Dorsetshire, where she “came in contact first with the mulberry tree, and later with Mr. Thomas Hardy,” two obsessions which enlivened her future life in the “large airy, magnificently equipped bird cage” of her own country home where she grew mulberries and cultivated silkworms, actually succeeding “in obtaining enough silk to make a dress” (E4 202, 203). And mulberries are among the catalogue of fruit trees planted at Orlando’s country home: “Pear trees and apple trees and cherry trees and mulberry trees” (81).

            Only two other times does Woolf refer to silk-making in all of her prose.  In her 1908 review of Lady Dorothy Nevill’s memoirs, she briefly mentioned her cultivation of silkworms in a list of her eccentric diversions: “She has collected watch papers and wedding rings and bills and old buttons, she has surrounded herself with odds and ends of furniture in all styles, she has bred silkworms and imported crayfish” (E1 182). The same year that her second essay on Lady Dorothy Nevill was published in the Athenaeum, Woolf’s Shakespearean novel of manners, Night and Day, had also appeared, in which the youth and somewhat silly eccentricity of the sub-heroine, Cassandra Ottoway, is exemplified by her passion for growing silkworms in her bedroom where “the ceiling [was] hung with mulberry-leaves, the windows blocked with cages, and the tables stacked with home-made machines for the manufacture of silk dresses” (ND 211-2). Like Lady Nevill, Cassandra’s enthusisms are varied and frivolous; “now it was socialism, now it was silkworms, now it was music” (283). 

                Another Mulberry, not a tree, makes its appearance in Mrs. Dalloway where the florist shop in Bond Street is named Mulberry’s, probably, like many streets, after some remnant of a forgotten silk plantation. At any rate, since Mulberry’s is the site of the single most dense accumulation of flowers in all of Woolf’s work, the shop and its namesake tree are linked to an efflorescence of the floral, a symbol of pastoral plenitude that awaits just inside the “swing doors”: “There were flowers: delphiniums, sweet peas, bunches of lilac; and carnations, masses of carnations. There were roses; there were irises. Ah yes—so she breathed in the earthy garden sweet smell” (MD 12).


By far the densest gathering of mulberry trees, however, is in Woolf’s fiercely feminist tract of 1938, Three Guineas, where they appear nine times, almost half her lifetime accumulation, as part of the repeated, parodic recitation of the nursery rhyme: “Here we go round the mulberry bush.” According to Wikipedia, the original rhyme was part of a singing game about children’s hygiene, the various verses having to do with washing the face, combing the hair, brushing of teeth, and putting on clothes. According to Coles, the song can be extended indefinitely by adding on less childish but characteristically female duties including laundry tasks such as washing, drying, wringing, and ironing clothes (177-8).  Although there is speculation that the song was meant to mock the failure of the attempt to grow silk in England, an even more provocative tale of origin is the tradition that the song was created by the women prisoners at Wakefield prison, just south of Leeds in North Yorkshire, who used to sing it dancing around a mulberry tree in the prison yard.[7]


            Woolf’s use of the mulberry in Three Guineas is a complete, bravura re-contextualization. Changing the bush into a tree, implicitly linking it to the long tradition of literary associations with figures such as Ovid, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, and Keats, she brilliantly inverts its connotations of order and commemoration to make it an ironic symbol of patriarchal authority. The rhyming chorus is repeated five times in Woolf’s essay in a gradually escalating sequence of negativity, four times in Chapter Two, and a fifth, confirming iteration in Chapter Three.  At first it is merely “the old tune which human nature, like a gramophone whose needle has stuck, is now grinding out with such disastrous unanimity,” but instead of the childish gestures of morning ablutions, Woolf’s rhyme conjures up an equally infantile selfishness: 'Here we go round the mulberry tree, the mulberry tree, the mulberry tree.  Give it all to me, give it all to me, all to me” (3G 72).  In its next appearance the mulberry tree has been politicized with a Marxist slant; it has become “the mulberry tree. . . of property” (80).  By its third round, the mulberry tree is an instrument of coercion: in the private house under patriarchy, women are shut up “like slaves in a harem”; in the public world women are forced “to circle, like caterpillars head to tail, round and round the mulberry tree, the sacred tree, of property” (90), a comparison intensified by Woolf’s earlier characterization of the Dictator as lying curled up like a caterpillar on a leaf. . . in the heart of England” (65).  Woolf’s call for women to “fight that insect” and “crush him in our own country” (65) is echoed in her advice to women to refuse to join in the compulsory dance of “the professional system, with its possessives, its jealousy, its pugnacity, its greed” (90) and her call to “directly the mulberry tree begins to make you circle, break off.  Pelt the tree with laughter” (97). By thus affiliating the mulberry tree with a system of privilege that constrains women into giving up their autonomy in order to earn a living, Woolf prepares for her final indictment of the mulberry tree as “the poison tree of intellectual harlotry” (117).


            This transformation of the mulberry into an icon of imprisonment is an intensification of Woolf’s earlier association of mulberry trees with the regimentation or restraint of women of privilege: Lady Dorothy Neville and Cassandra Ottoway both raise silkworms in cages. But Woolf’s rejection of the mulberry in Three Guineas may carry with it a trace of the British habit of associating its most venerated writers with the aged trees.  Woolf clearly knew about Shakespeare’s mulberry; in her second essay on Lady Dorothy Neville she refers to calling people who chop down mulberry trees for Sailor’s homes “vandals,” suggesting rather confusingly that that this might be a reference to Shakespeare (E4 202). And in a diary entry about a visit to New Place in Stratford-on-Avon in May of 1934, she refers to the Reverend Gastrell and to seeing “A mulberry reputed to be the scion of the tree that grew outside Shre’s window” (D4 220). Woolf also knew about Blake’s angelic mulberry vision; in her 1917 TLS essay on literary pilgrimages, Flumina Amem Silvasque,” she argues against the imaginative poverty of strictly accurate descriptions by suggesting that “there is no reason to think that the tree that was filled with angels was peculiar to Peckham Rye” (E2 162). And although she does not name the mulberry in front of Keats House, in her 1932 essay on “Great Men’s Houses,” she clearly records its existence: “as we enter the house in which Keats lived some mournful shadow seems to fall across the garden. A tree has fallen and lies propped” (E5 296).


 That the “vicious circle, the dance” Woolf calls women to free themselves from in Three Guineas is in part the procession of literary greats is supported by the end of the paragraph about “intellectual harlotry” (117) where Woolf declares that the freedom offered by Milton and Keats has now been confined “in a lecture room, rank with the fumes of stale print, listening to a gentleman who is forced to lecture or to write every Wednesday, every Sunday, about Milton or about Keats, while the lilac shakes its branches in the garden free” (3G 118) -- setting up the mulberry as a kind of counter-pastoral to the lilac.[8]


The mulberry is thus one of the most syncretically dense of Woolf's botanical images; carrying with it intimations of the pastoral coupled with a national poetic tradition, it nevertheless represents a corruption of both, conjuring an image of women prisoners dancing around a monument to the thwarted privileges of making and wearing silk. The fact that a previous attempt to create a profitable industry out of breeding these trees failed only adds to Woolf’s ironic rejection of nationalism. And I cannot help but feel that the bloody mass of berries that fall from the tree and stain the hands as red as those of Lady Macbeth hovers in the sensory background of the allusions to the poison shed by the tree.


One last reference to mulberries in Woolf’s biography of Roger Fry suggests a more measured compromise with the heritage of the mulberry.  Describing Fry’s years in Chelsea Woolf mentions a “great mulberry tree [that] hung its branches over the garden wall separating Fry’s house in Beaufort Street from that of his neighbor Ricketts (82).  Despite the fact that “Roger and Ricketts did not really like each other” as Fry was “inclined to be irritated by the somewhat irresponsible dogmatism of Rickett’s talk,” every year Fry accepted the invitation of his conservative neighbor with the mulberry tree to come have tea when the berries were ripe and eat his “share of the mulberry vintage”(85).  While still an emblem of division, the mulberry tree hanging over the wall, is a reminder of Pyramus and Thisbe whispering to communicate with each other under its equivocal shade.


[1] The red mulberry, Morus ruba, only grows in North America; the paper mulberry, Morus papyrifera lately renamed Broussonetia papyrifera is also native to China and Japan where its bark was one of the earliest sources for paper (Coles 16-7, 48).

[7] See this BBC article about Wakefield on the occasion of the death of the tree in 2017: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-leeds-48187650


[8] I am indebted to Shilo Rae McGiff  for aiding and abetting my thinking about the mulberry as a rejection of both the pastoral and the national. See  McGiff, Shilo. "Out of the Heart of Spring ": Virginia Woolf and the Changing Shapes of Pastoral 1928-1938. ProQuest Information and Learning, 2018, https://doi.org/10.7298/waxh-c171. p.222-226

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Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...