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Cheshire Tree Surgeons

One Mulberry Tree 

Mid summer 2002 I received a call requesting that I come to one of my client’s 500 year old hall in the middle of a village close to Chester to assess the possibility of saving a large old Mulberry tree which had fallen over in a storm.As I investigated the trees failure it emerged that the area had become waterlogged through a long term burst pipe which had gone un-noticed. P8Mulb1.jpg 

The correspondingly high water table close to the tree caused anaerobic conditions in all but the very top layers of soil effectively killing the trees deep roots and reducing the support afforded by those roots. Consequently when a reasonable wind blew across this part of the Cheshire plain, this trees weaknesses were exposed.

P8Mulb2.jpg Christleton Old Hall, Chester.

Preliminary dendro-chronology (dating a tree through examination of its tree rings) indicated that this tree was in the region of 200-250 years old. It’s position and pride of place right in front of the Old Hall made this trees position one of possible historical significance.

I have attended to trees around many of the finest houses and estates in the Northwest and have often seen similarly positioned old Mulberry trees in typically prime positions. As such they seem to define grand houses of over a certain age.

There is in fact a very good reason for this and the story of how Mulberry trees came to mark key positions outside stately homes of the aristocracy, links these trees to an ancient industry and power struggle to control it’s trade. Silk! 

The production of Silk, you see, had originally been the exclusive secret of the Chinese and that situation persisted for thousand of years, until one of the Roman Emperors commissioned one of the first cases of international industrial espionage when he bought the secret of Silk production. 

Since those times Silk has been produced in Europe although some of both the finest and the most coarse qualities of Silk have still come from China defining both the exclusive and bulk ends of the market.

James I the King of England in the mid 1500’s  was particularly envious of the other European kingdom’s Silk production and decided he was going to use his considerable influence to create a Silk industry in this country. 

To kick start the initiative he needed quantities of what the silk worm feeds on, Mulberry leaves, and he arranged for saplings to be made available and strongly suggested to the wealthy landowners that they should support this initiative by planting lots of his trees.  So they did!

All went well and apart from the plantations most of the participating landowners (possibly in anticipation of a Royal visit) showed their support by planting an example tree in a prominent position near to their house. 

History shows that the plan went comically astray. Unbeknown to King James the silk worm will only eat White Mulberry and he had proliferated Black Mulberry far and wide, embarrassingly engaging the help and support of his aristocracy in this ill-conceived folly.

The fledgling silk industry didn’t recover from this ignominious start and the only legacy are some ancient Black Mulberry trees which stand where the landowners placed them in order to advertise their solidarity with the crown

So the remnants of that time, the large old Black Mulberry trees which occupy such focal positions have come to define the tree and its usual position in grand landscape designs in the same way that the dark and sombre Yew trees look and feel right in church yards. 

This Mulberry tree was not one of these first generation of the 1500’s even though the hall dates to around the beginning of that century, but it is right in context and as a result probably occupies a position defined by an earlier Mulberry tree which is likely to have been one of the original plantings.

Further, as this species most easily grow from stout sticks buried 3 feet into the ground, it is possible that this tree can trace its lineage back to the original folly.So, we have taken the job of making the best use of this tree and make sure that every part that can be found use for, is used and appreciated for its intrinsic values but also because it has value wrapped up in the history of it’s life and this country. I am sure that James 1st would approve.  

P8MulbI_ss.jpgP8Mulberries.jpg We propogated cuttings and even made Mulberry wine from the fruit.

Mulberry wood is prized for its beauty so we have saved the trunk which we hope to cut into whatever the most appropriate use dictates.

Mulberry_bowl_crop.jpg A bowl turned from a side branch.

We have saved every branch and root . As it failed in August it was in fruit so we made wine from it and we even saved the woodchip which we will find some suitable use for. Our intention is to find use for each and every part of this tree and of course we have taken many cuttings to try to keep it’s lineage intact. Genetic as well as historical continuity.

The reason for writing this? Well, it is to illustrate how the living portion of a tree’s life can become part of the legacy that the craftsman weaves into a modern classical piece of real quality furniture, or a wonderful bowl or a musical instrument. An artisan who takes such timber, be he a turner, a cabinet or a model maker can draw reference to the tree, the place it lived and the likely reason it was placed there and treasured through its long life. It’s life’s legacy in it’s death or to put it another way, nothing is wasted, but the tree! However, of course, we will also be preserving it’s living legacy as well by planting the saplings that we have taken as cuttings.

Mulberry-root-cs.jpg This is the root stock We have the trunk ready to convert.

We have developed a website www.craftwoods.co.uk where people who appreciate such things can come and make sure that whatever is made from it will be equally treasured.  Such items might as a result become seen in future as this era’s re-emergence of appreciation of real quality of workmanship and natural materials, in what is a cultural reaction to the throw away society of the last century.

David Lloyd-Jones Cheshire Arboriculture  e-mail david@treeadvice.com