Mankind and the magnificent mulberry; a plants-and-people tale

Mulberry by Peter Coles 2019. Reaktion Books Ltd.

Arguably, the only thing you need to know about Mulberry by Peter Coles is that it’s a title in Reaktion BooksBotanical series. Anyone who’s read my book appraisals should know what I think of that brilliant series of plant-based texts. For a reminder, please see my thoughts on Palm, Birch, Carnivorous Plants, Sunflowers, Rose, and Primulas. These titles are some of the best plants-and-people books that I know, and are thoroughly recommended for all who want to gain a little more appreciation of how important plants are to people.

But, I probably ought to say a little more here specifically about Mulberry… In an unexpected way, my recent musings on the legitimacy of inclusion of animal-produced silk in Judith Sumner’s When Plants go to War, and Robert Spengler’s Fruits from the Sands – which looks at food exchanges along the Silk Road – have come together in this blog item that considers the mulberry. Why?

Well, if you know anything about mulberry it’s probably that it’s the tree whose leaves are the diet of the larvae – so-called silkworms [but which are not worms] – of the silk moth that produce silk. Accordingly, there is a lot in Mulberry about the silk industry and sericulture (the “process of cultivating silkworms and extracting silk from them”), and moriculture, the associated practice of “the cultivation of mulberry trees”. Indeed, Chapter 2 is devoted to that wondrous fabric, which was first produced about 4700 years ago by the Chinese. The Chinese story is told at length, as are accounts of the varied fortunes (quite literally) of the countries that tried to develop their own silk industries – once the knowledge of silk manufacture became known beyond the confines of China. And one of the routes along which this westward, wealth-creating knowledge spread from China was the Silk Road(s)*.

Although Coles goes into considerable detail about the fledgling – and eventually usually floundering – silkworm industries around the globe, it’s done in a highly readable, informative and entertaining way – avoiding the danger of being too dry. Appropriately, we read about seri- and moriculture in places such as Constantinople, the Greek and Roman Empires, France, Spain (and its territory in the Americas), and even England (and its American possessions). Undoubtedly, silk was big business, and considered so important to the finances of some countries that it was often under state control with workers in silk punished if they didn’t meet quotas, or rewarded if they did. Along with the economic importance of silkworm rearing and management – and author Coles reveals the fascinating and intimate biological relationship between the silk moth and mulberry tree – is the role that mass cultivation of mulberry trees had in changing the landscapes of the countries in which sericulture/moriculture took hold. Today, those individual or massed mulberry trees provide a silent but long-lasting, leafy legacy of those earlier economic endeavours.

But, the significance and relevance of the mulberry goes far beyond its crucial role as a foodstuff for silkworms, and much of the book looks at those other aspects of the tree and the genus Morus. Although the leaves of the white mulberry – M. alba – are the best food-source for silkworms, many silk industries beyond China began using black mulberry (M. nigra) leaves – usually with inferior results. But, if black mulberry is not so good for silk production, there is much else that this tree is useful for and Coles provides an impressive catalogue of uses of black mulberry specifically, and of other related mulberry trees generally. Thus, he tells tales of the red mulberry (M. rubra), native to North America, the paper mulberry (whish used to be in the Morus genus as M. papyrifera, but is now known as Broussonetia papyrifera), and M. kagayama – which, reputedly, provides the most expensive wood in the world. We therefore read of the place of mulberry in folk myths, art and literature, and its roles in the production of paper money, the manufacture of musical instruments, and numerous medicinal uses (although not all of which are yet ‘confirmed’ by science…), etc., etc..

Mulberry covers a lot of ground: In time, from 63.5 millions of years ago (when the genus Morus first appears) to 2017 when Japan opened its ‘bioclean’ silkworm factory; in space, from the origins of silk production in China around the globe and back to China and Japan; and in terms of the range of plants-and-people interactions – which includes history, epidemiology, economics, globalisation, and Shakespeare. It also introduced me to the notion of muromanie – ‘mulberry mania’ – which was apparently first prevalent in France around 1763. A second bout of this ‘madness’ in 19th century USA saw investors speculating on the price of M. multicaulis saplings, but with no intention to use them to feed silkworms. Mulberry thus joins that very ‘privileged’ groups of plants that have been harbingers of hysteria in humans, specifically tulips in 17th century Netherlands’ tulipomania, and ferns in 19th century Victorian Britain’s craze of pteridomania. Mulberry is clearly an influential plant!

As is typical for a Reaktion Books’ Botanical Series title, Mulberry is relatively short (256 pages that are approx. A5 in size), abundantly illustrated, and well-written. It’s a story that’s told well, and contains many good yarns. And. since author Coles is co-founder and editor of Morus Londinium – a web site devoted to unravelling London’s mulberry tree heritage – this is a book that’s been written by an obvious enthusiast for its subject.

However, despite the wide range of topics that are included in Mulberry, there’s no mention of mulberry harbours or Thomas Love Peacock’s poemThe priest and the mulberry tree’**. Which goes to underline the fact that there are always more plants-and-people connections that could be included for every plant that’s considered in each of the books in this series. And what any reader already knows – or doesn’t know – is a rather personal thing. Absence of those two topics – or any others – doesn’t diminish the value of Mulberry, but instead emphasises the myriad ways plants affect all aspects of our lives – and there will always be more to learn, and read about.


My views on the publisher’s Botanical series of books are documented [see the start of this blog item]. I’m pleased to say that Mulberry continues that proud tradition of plants-and-people publishing and promotion, and Peter Coles’ book is a very worthy addition to the ever-expanding collection of titles.

The back cover of Mulberry states, “Since antiquity few trees have had a greater impact on the world’s culture and economy than the mulberry”. That is a bold claim. Whether it is justified is always going to be questioned. But, Peter Coles certainly does his best to substantiate that assertion. You are most cordially invited to read Mulberry and form your own view…

* But, although known by the rather romantic name of The Silk Road, this series of routes was in use long before silk and silk-processing knowledge moved along them. Still, its name attests to the iconic status with which silk was once held; after all, at its highest point, the fabric was apparently worth its weight in gold.

** Which poem I’m only aware of because ‘we did something’ about it in school when I was 11 or 12 years old…

Nigel Chaffey

I am a botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ - and to Botany One - for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. Happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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