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Just a postscript, really, to the previous post. Since writing that, I’ve found a couple more pieces of information about mulberries at Sayes Court.

Firstly, there were mulberries, probably black ones, in the garden even before Evelyn took it over. Letters from Christopher Brown to his son Richard Brown (Evelyn’s future father-in -law) describe their garden at Sayes Court in March and June 1642. The easterly winds that year damaged the damask roses, as well as the walnut trees and  – the mulberries.

Secondly, there is a letter to Evelyn dated 11 April 1670, signed N. Jameson, apparently the minister of St Paul’s church in Hackney, asking if he knows how or by whom the seeds of the white mulberry can be obtained: “by all the enquiry I could hitherto make by my friends about London for some seed of the whiter kind, which your book treats of, I have not hitherto been so happy as to procure any, nor indeed to meet with those who ever heard of any such mulberry or seed.”

Finally, here is proof that Evelyn did indeed have one or more white mulberries at Sayes Court, brought to him from Languedoc. This passage is from Dendrologia, printed as part of the fourth edition of Sylva. He praises the mulberry for its useful wood, implies its fruit and leaves are undervalued, and then continues:

“But it is not here I would recommend our ordinary black fruit bearers, though that be likewise worth the propagation; but that kind which is call’d the white mulberry (which I have had sent me out of Languedoc) one of them of a broad leaf, found there and in Provence, whose seeds being procured from Paris, where they have it from Avignon, should be thus treated in the seminary.” He goes on to talk at length about how to grow the white mulberry, including the suggestion of improving it by grafting it onto black mulberry.

 

References:

Darley, G. 2006, John Evelyn, Living for Ingenuity, p. 79  and p. 319, n. 11

Bray, W., 1887, Diary and Correspondence of John Evelyn, vol. III, p. 227.

Dendrologia, p. 204, at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/20778/20778-h/20778-h.htm#II_CHAPTER_I

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A little while ago, Oxford University plant scientist Barrie Juniper, author of The Tradescants’ Orchard, and co-author with his daughter Sarah of a forthcoming new commentary on Evelyn’s Acetaria, contacted me on the subject of the Sayes Court Park mulberry tree. It was this tree that drew me in to investigate the history of Sayes Court to begin with, and I’ve written about it twice already on this blog, (here and here) so you might reasonably wonder what more there could be to say about it.

Well, it turns out it’s rather a mysterious specimen from the genetic point of view. According to the usual accounts, the  mulberry was introduced to Britain under King James 1 in the early seventeenth century, in a failed attempt to establish a home-grown silk industry here. The failure occurred, apparently, because he mistakenly brought in the black mulberry, morus nigra, whereas silk-worms flourish on the white mulberry, morus alba. Now, Barrie informed me that the black mulberry is, quote: “wildly polyploidy“. What this means in practical terms is that it is sterile, and can’t reproduce from seed.

But Barrie fell into conversation one day with the Bodleian Library’s conservation and collection officer Andrew Honey, who told him that he was successfully growing some  saplings from seed he’d collected in 1997 from the berries of the Sayes Court mulberry tree.  See the photo below.

Mulberry sapling grown by Andrew Honey

Mulberry sapling grown by Andrew Honey

So, if not a morus nigra, despite its lovely large black fruits, what is the Sayes Court tree? To my excitement, Barrie offered to arrange to test its DNA to find out.  I went along to the park last autumn and carefully collected a couple of leaves, put them into a silica gel pack, and posted it off to Oxford.

After five months’ impatient wait (at least in my case), we got the results. There was a high amount of DNA present, which I’m told means that it “has to be a polyploid of some nature”. On the other hand, thanks to Andrew’s demonstration, it’s clearly fertile. Barrie speculates that, along with the standard black mulberry, some other mutants, of intermediate (chromosome) counts,  were around in the seventeenth century, some of which were partly  fertile. If so, the Sayes Court tree could be an “intermediate, high count, half-way white to black mulberry. Of which this specimen is NOT the original Evelyn ( no chance ) but a second or third  generation seedling more or less on the same site.”

Only another test to determine the exact chromosome count could settle this question for sure. Meanwhile, the last I heard, of Andrew’s two mulberry saplings, one has sadly died and the other was touch-and-go, due to flooding on the Thameside allotment where they were growing.

Mulberries from Andrew Honey's sapling

Mulberries from Andrew Honey’s sapling

However, I’m glad to report that there are still plenty of berries on the Sayes Court tree, despite the recent storms and weird weather. I (and the little boxful that will be nurtured for the next 90 days in my freezer) wish it well for its uncertain future, overshadowed by the windy canyons of Convoy’s Wharf.

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Damaged mulberry, Sayes Ct. Park

Damaged mulberry, Sayes Ct. Park

I have been meaning for a while to post more about the ancient mulberry that first drew my attention to Sayes Court Park. Now it has sadly suffered some major damage, losing a bough that appears to have been rotting for some time. Reporting the loss, the South London Press calls it “Peter the Great’s tree”, predictably trotting out the persistent legend that it was planted by the Russian czar. As I’ve said before, I think this is extremely unlikely, because Peter showed little interest in anything other than wrecking the garden during his brief stay at Sayes Court. In my opinion, the legend probably conflates the lingering memory of Peter’s visit with the tree that had become emblematic of the lost garden.

The dubious association with Peter goes back at least to the mid-nineteenth century. Peter Cunningham’s 1850 Handbook of London refers to “a tree said to have been planted by Peter the Great when working in this country as a shipwright”. On the other hand, Nathan Dews’s History of Deptford, published in 1883, quotes an unnamed 1833 piece or book by one Alfred Davis that described (presumably the same?) tree as follows: ” A forlornly looking, ragged mulberry tree, standing at the bottom of Czar Street, was the last survivor of the thousands of arborets planted by “sylva” Evelyn in the gardens and grounds surrounding his residence at Deptford.” Planted by Evelyn, not by Peter the great, note! Of course, the present mulberry tree is not at the bottom of Czar Street, but of Sayes Court St., but perhaps we shouldn’t expect too much geographical exactness – it surely is the same tree that we see today?

Charlton House Mulberry planted 1608

Charlton House Mulberry planted 1608

Could the mulberry really have been part of Evelyn’s planting? There are two angles we can approach this question from: the age of the tree, and whether its siting matches what we know of the garden’s layout in the seventeenth century. If the tree’s annual growth rings could be counted, we’d know its exact age – but that would mean drilling into it, which I wouldn’t advocate! But if you compare its girth and general gnarled state with the mulberry at nearby Charlton House, known to date from 1608, it does seem to be of similar character.

As for its siting, it’s difficult to be certain, but It is most probably in the area known then as the Broomefield, a long plot of land that was only incorporated into the garden a few decades after Evelyn first laid it out.  (On the plans from the 1690’s it is divided into squares edged with unspecified trees).  Still, it is quite close to the part of the garden that formed the Great Orchard, which Evelyn says in the key to his 1653 plan he planted with “300 fruit trees of the best sorts mingled”. There could have been a mulberry among them, although I think they were then still not common. The only mulberry Evelyn specifically records is the one he notes as “the mulberry”, on the island in the lake, some distance away at the northern edge of the garden. So it is doubtful whether there were any others, at least at that time. Of course, the garden changed over the decades, and as I have already described, part of the Great Orchard by 1692 had become another grove, interlaced with geometric walks. However, if in this new grove Evelyn kept some or all of the by-then mature and thickly-planted fruit trees of the earlier orchard and merely inserted paths between them, it is possible our mulberry survives from then. My own view, for what it’s worth, is that the mulberry was either in Evelyn’s garden, or is a direct descendant of one that was. Without a detailed planting record, though, the question must remain open.

New Coal Exchange floor design

New Coal Exchange floor design

Once the rest of the garden had gone, a single surviving tree would inevitably become a potent reminder of what had been lost, gradually accruing greater poignancy as the site around it became more and more ravaged by development. Dews mentions that in his time a fragment of the mulberry was in the custody of Hastings Hicks, the Evelyns’ agent at their estate office on Evelyn St. Were people helping themselves to bits of the old tree as souvenirs, or had parts of it started to rot and drop off even back then?

The scavenging went on even at the highest level: Dews and Cunningham both noted that a piece of the tree was taken and used as part of the design of the main floor of the New Coal Exchange, constructed between 1847 to 1849 in Lower Thames Street. It formed the blade of the dagger in the city of London’s shield. Unfortunately, there is no record of what happened to it when the New Coal Exchange, despite being Grade II listed, was demolished in 1962 in order to widen the road.

New Coal Exchange under demolition

New Coal Exchange under demolition

In order to put this tree-reverence business in perspective, a short digression is hopefully excusable here. Imbuing trees with special significance as embodying the spirit of a place, a powerful person such as a king, or even a whole tribe, goes back a long way in our traditions. In neighbouring Celtic Gaul they called such a sacred tree a bile. A grove of them was termed a nemeton in both countries. Oak trees in particular were objects of veneration, and when a peoples’ sacred oak died or was destroyed, their strength was believed to go with it. “Merlin’s Oak” in Carmarthen is a good example of this. I also think the upended and fenced-in oak tree discovered at Seahenge might once have represented a group of people who those who constructed it had defeated, or wished to control.

Dead mulberry sapling, Sayes Ct. Park

So, regardless of who actually planted it, the mulberry tree has become a fitting symbol of Sayes Court Garden and John Evelyn. Several older readers of this blog have commented on their fond childhood memories of tasting fruit from the tree, and there is clearly a strong affection for it among those who live or have lived in Deptford. If the Deptford High St anchor symbolizes the area’s dockland and maritime past, you could argue that the Sayes Court mulberry tree is an icon of its land-based history. Despite the press headline declaring that the mulberry “faces the chop” and can’t be saved, with some well-deserved tlc, it surely can. Even so, with an eye to the future, and since it is easy to propagate mulberries, Lewisham Council really should see to that this autumn. Oh, and let’s hope they look after any cuttings better than the one planted in the adjoining border that died of neglect recently…

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