Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/A blood-stained fruit: the mulberry

Once a Week, Series 1, Volume IX  (1863) 
A blood-stained fruit. The mulberry
by Elizabeth Eiloart


When every other tree in garden, wood, or wold, has donned the green vesture of spring, one still remains in “naked majesty,” an Adam of the Eden. The cold night winds, nipping so many tender buds which had been too easily lured forth by transitory noontide sunshine, beat harmlessly upon the mulberry’s sapless bark; and not till the last spring frost is over, and cold has finally yielded to the mild persuasions of approaching summer, does it abandon its bare-branched security, and suffer its young leaves to venture forth, gladdening the watchful gardener with an unerring token that his hitherto sheltered floral nurslings may now be safely trusted in the open parterre. Nor has this tree’s extreme wariness escaped the poet’s observant eye, for Cowley describes at length how

Cautiously the mulberry did move,
And first the temper of the skies would prove
What sign the sun was in, and if she might
Give credit yet to winter’s seeming flight.
She dares not venture on his first retreat,
Nor trust her fruit and leaves to doubtful heat;
Her ready sap within her bark confines
Till she of settled warmth has certain signs;
Then making rich amends for the delay,
With sudden haste she dons her green array.

But though the foliage displays such singular reticence as regards making its first appearance, it might offer the same kind of apology which was tendered by Charles Lamb, when, on being remonstrated with for coming to business so late in the morning, he replied, “But then remember how early I go away in the afternoon;” for though mulberry leaves are the last to put forth in spring, they are the very first to leave in autumn, the least frost bringing them all to the ground.

Its peculiar cautiousness earning for it from the ancients the title of the wisest of trees, the mulberry was dedicated by the Greeks to Minerva; while, to account for the fact of there being both a white and a black-fruited species, they wove the fanciful legend of Pyramus and Thisbe—more familiar, perhaps, to many from the burlesque of Bottom, than from the pathetic original of Ovid, who, in sad seriousness, celebrates how, when the lover deemed his lady slain, he threw himself upon his own sword, when she, returning only to find him dying, slew herself also; and this Romeo and Juliet of the ancient world thus expired together at the foot of the mulberry tree where they had been accustomed to meet, crimsoning its roots with a sanguine stream, till

The berries, stained with blood, began to show
A dark complexion, and forgot their snow;
While, fattened with a flowing gore, the root
Was doomed for ever to a purple fruit.
The prayer which dying Thisbe had preferred
Both gods and parents with compassion heard,
The mulberry found its former whiteness fled,
And, ripening, saddened in a dusky red.

A native of China, of Syria—where, in very early times, we find David “smiting the Philistines under the mulberry trees”—and of Persia, this tree is supposed to have been brought from the latter country to Greece and Rome, where it was more esteemed than almost any other fruit, even in the Romans’ most luxurious times. Spreading thence to other parts of Europe, it is believed to have been brought to England by the monks, arriving in 1548, and is said to have been first planted in the gardens of Sion House (now the seat of the Duke of Northumberland), where, very recently, the original trees were still living, and no barren or unfruitful life, the branches having continued to bear luxuriant leaves and fruit long after the trunks had become so decayed as to crumble at a touch. A great impetus was given to the culture of the mulberry in England at the beginning of the seventeenth century, in consequence of James I. having conceived the idea that we might become a silk-growing nation, and, in consequence, doing all in his power to encourage the planting of this tree, not only expending his learned eloquence in exhorting his subjects to give their attention to it, but even offering packets of the seed to any who might choose to apply for them. This seems, however, to have been but a temporary crotchet of the royal brain, which, though exciting much enthusiasm during 1605, was, in the course of a few years, quite forgotten; but while it lasted, it had the effect of establishing mulberry trees in the gardens of most of the gentry of that period, many of which still survive, having, probably, in part owed their preservation to the fact of their regal patron not having apparently been sufficiently well versed in botanical distinctions to discriminate between the white mulberry—which is best fitted to feed silk-worms, but is good for little else—and the black mulberry, which, though less welcome to the caterpillar, yet furnishes fruit acceptable to man; whence it happened that most of the trees which he had caused to be planted with a special view to insect nurture, turned out to be of the latter species, and were, therefore, still valued, even when the practice of silk-worm rearing had ceased to be a fashionable pursuit.[1] This mistake respecting the two species may, however, have helped to render James’s scheme abortive; but that the failure of his plan was not entirely due to it, is evident from its having been proved in later days that, however even the white mulberry may seem to thrive in this country, its leaves will not in our climate acquire that juicy tenderness which, in warmer lands, so eminently fits them for the spinners’ nutriment; for, in the language of the “Journal d’Agriculture des Pays Bas,” “the mulberry, to produce the best silk, requires the same soil and exposure as the vine does to produce the best wine.” The dreams, therefore, of minor enthusiasts, who, since King James’s period, have, from time to time, taken up his idea of introducing silk-growing as a branch of our national industry, have always resulted in equal disappointment.

Though devoured with such avidity by silk-worms, the leaves of the mulberry are eaten by no other kind of insect (although the fruit is peculiarly liable to the attacks of a very voracious worm), and its unmolested ample foliage of large, heart-shaped, serrated leaves, sometimes more or less lobed, yields, therefore, during the hot months, a very grateful shade, on which account it is commonly grown in France in the corners of courtyards, where accumulations of rubbish furnish it with a congenial soil; and as it never requires any pruning, beyond disembarrassment of the dead wood, when it becomes aged, a process which mostly quite rejuvenates the tree, it gives no trouble to its owner, and supplies during some months a continual feast to his poultry, even if he himself be quite indifferent to the charms of its fruit. Its leaves, too, are readily eaten by cattle, but the wood, which is very light in weight, is fit for little else than fuel, though the bitter root is sometimes used medicinally as a vermifuge. The blossoms, which appear in June, are not very ornamental; the male flowers, closely set together in a drooping catkin, an inch or two long, consisting only of a four-sepaled calyx surrounding four stamens; while the female ones, comprising forty or fifty tiny flowers arranged in the form of an upright spike, present also no gay corolla, but only a similar calyx encircling an ovary with two styles. It is this mass of cohering calices and ovaries which, gradually becoming fleshy and juicy, form eventually the fruit, each ovary maturing, in its two-celled interior, a single seed, and as it thus consists of “seeds embedded in pulp,” the appearance of the whole fully answers to the popular description of a “berry,” and has therefore earned for it the title of Mulberry. A modern botanist, however, would no more let this suffice to give it a place among berries, than he would consider that a butterfly must be classed among birds, because both have wings; and though, at a first casual glance, it may seem to bear a great resemblance to some of the berry fruits, especially to the similarly complexioned blackberry, a moment’s examination will show the great difference there is between them, the latter being the outgrowth of a single flower, the numerous ovaries of which form each a distinct and separable little berry, the whole number of these little berries adhering round a common receptacle, forming together a single fruit; whereas, in the mulberry, numerous flowers cohere to make one fruit; yet, instead of its divisions being more distinct, as might have been supposed, their union, on the contrary, is so complete, that though dividing markings appear upon the surface, they do not extend much deeper, and the parts, therefore, are not separable like the grains of a blackberry. The real class-mate of the mulberry is the pine-apple, which is formed in a similar way by numerous succulent calices cohering into a single fleshy mass; and different as are these two fruits as regards size, colour, and mode of vegetation, traces of their one great point of affinity, in being both what are called “aggregate fruits,” may soon be detected on comparing their external surfaces—marked, as each is, with such well defined, but non-separating divisions.

The mulberry when first formed is green, it then becomes red, and finally black, whence the generic name Morus[2] (from mauros, dark) is derived—a fact rather opposed to the romantic Ovidian theory, of all mulberries having been white until after the death of Pyramus and Thisbe; and involving, too, a little absurdity in the surnames by which the species are distinguished—that of nigra, affixed to the black-fruited kind, being but a pleonasm, as meaning the same thing; while alba, or white, the special title of the silk-worm-feeding sort, though justified by its snowy fruit, is as evidently a complete paradox. When fully ripe, so readily does the inky juice of the black mulberry burst through its tender skin, that it can scarcely he touched without leaving a sable stain upon the fingers, a circumstance which, it appears, is sometimes rather prejudicial to its position in society, a French writer remarking concerning the fruit, that “though many people are very fond of them, they are more often consumed in the country than at city repasts, where elegance ought to exclude them, since if not eaten with great care they stain the clothes.” When they are partaken of in France, they are served at the beginning of the meal, instead of forming part of the dessert.

Like the strawberry, the mulberry does not undergo the acetous fermentation in the stomach, and may therefore be safely eaten by the most delicate. Among the Romans it had, further, a great medicinal reputation, especially with regard to diseases of the throat and windpipe, and its syrup is still thought to be good for sore throats. It affords an excellent preserve, though not put to this use so often as it might be; is capable of being made into wine, which however is never found to keep very long; and brandy, but of a very weak sort, has also sometimes been distilled from it. As it falls from the tree (chiefly during September) as soon as it is ripe, it is usual to have a grass plat beneath, in order to furnish a carpet on which the fruit may descend without soil or injury; but as bare earth, offering a dark surface, causes a greater radiation of heat, and thus promotes the ripening process, a superior plan is, to sow cress seed thickly under the tree two or three weeks before its produce is matured, and thus provide a temporary covering for the ground just at the time when it is needed; or, better still, a net may be suspended among the branches to catch the luscious shower as it drops. With no other fruit, perhaps, except the fig, is the question of quality so dependent upon its being secured at exactly the right moment. “Every berry,” says Glennie, “has its day of perfection, before or after which it is bad. Before it is ready, it is acid and almost nauseous; and the day after, it is flat.” The harvest, however, is usually so abundant that one tree will generally suffice to supply the wants of a large family, and an instance has been known of as many as eighty quarts a week having been gathered during the season from a single tree—a very old and famous one in a garden at Greenwich, which covered a circumference of 150 feet, and, in spite of Elder plants springing up within the decayed trunk, and Ivy clinging with stifling embrace to its exterior, continued to bear large quantities of the finest fruit of the sort in England. It is indeed the ordinary characteristic of this plant to become more prolific as it increases in age, while the fruit also improves in quality, in compensation, as it would seem, for its barrenness in youth; for (unless grafted) it does not usually bear at all until it has attained a rather advanced age; since, like most plants which bring forth distinct male and female flowers, only the former are produced at first, and it is not until Nature’s ’prentice hand” has been “tried” for some years upon these, that she proceeds to fashion her vegetable Eves. Recent experiments, however, have shown that by due management it is possible to make the mulberry tree bear fruit when only three years old. Its propagation is by no means difficult, for a branch torn off and thrust at once into the ground, readily takes root, and becomes ere long a tree; while so tenacious is it of life, that roots have been known to send up shoots to the surface after having lain dormant in the earth for twenty-four years. It rarely reaches a height of thirty feet, and though of a much-branched spreading character, does not usually attain a very large size. The bark is always rough and thick, but the leaves are subject to so much diversity of size and shape as to have given rise, at one time, to the idea of there being several varieties distinct from the common sort; only one, however, being now reckoned, and that differing so little in essentials, that it need scarcely have been separated; so that the remark is still applicable which was made centuries ago by Pliny, respecting the mulberry, viz., that “It is in this tree that human ingenuity has effected the least improvement of all; there are no varieties here, no modifications effected by grafting, nor, in fact, any other improvement, except that the size of the fruit by careful management has been increased.” In America the mulberry will scarcely grow further north than New York, and it is in no part much cultivated, since even when apparently fine fruit is abundantly produced, it is not found equal in flavour to what is grown in England. A native variety, the Morus rubra, very common in both North and South America, and which has larger leaves than M. nigra, bears red fruit, tolerably palatable, but far inferior to our black.

In common with its near relative the fig, which it also resembles in the circumstance of its aggregate fruit being formed by the union of numerous flowers, the mulberry contains in every part of the tree a milky juice, which will coagulate into a coarse sort of india-rubber, and as this specially abounds in the white species, it has been surmised that the tenacity of the filament spun by the silk-worm may be due to this element of its food. It is rarely that the white mulberry, originally a native of Syria, is seen in England, its very inferior fruit being only fit to feed poultry; but it may be readily distinguished, even in winter, from its negro brother by its slender, upright shape, and more numerous white-barked shoots. In general it grows faster than M. nigra, its leaves are less rough, as well as more juicy, and its bark, macerated and prepared like flax, may be spun into a very fine fabric. Having become naturalised in many parts of Asia and Europe, numerous varieties have originated, some of which bear very tolerable fruit, but none perhaps are equal to the black in this respect.


  1. Shakspeare’s famous mulberry-tree, which was planted in 1609, belonged to the black or common species. A slip from it was planted by Garrick in the garden of his villa, near Hampton Court, and became a tree, which probably still flourishes.
  2. It is believed that this word has itself furnished an etymology, the peninsula of the Morea being, it is said, so called on account of its shape resembling that of a mulberry leaf.