Friday 14 October 2022

Round the Mulberry Bush by Laurie Graham


The song we all know from childhood doesn’t make a lot of sense but neither does Gathering Nuts in May nor, indeed, many other nursery rhymes. I’m told the Scandinavian version is Here We Go Round the Juniper Bush.

Not on a cold and frosty morning but on the hottest day (so far) of the century, we honoured a Charterhouse tradition: presentation of our first mulberry harvest of the year to the Lord Mayor of London. When did this practice begin, and why? We don’t know. But during Covid lockdown we turned our mulberries into jam and sent a jar round to the Mansion House.

Were there mulberry trees in the Charterhouse gardens during our 160 years as a monastery? The nearby Priory of St Bartholomew certainly had a mulberry garden next to its infirmary, suggesting that the tree was considered to have medicinal value. The Carthusians, as a closed order, wouldn't have been engaged in ministering to the sick, but perhaps they cultivated mulberries for in-house consumption.

We currently have several mulberry trees at The Charterhouse, of varying ages. The one plundered so its fruit could be presented to the Lord Mayor is a parvenu, dating from only the middle of the 19th century and is allegedly a cutting from a tree in the Fellows’ Garden of Christ’s College, Cambridge, known as Milton’s Mulberry. Why so called? It was planted around the year of Milton’s birth so would certainly have existed when he was a student there. Did he sit beneath it, versifying? Once again, we don’t know.

What we do know is that in the early 17th century a lot of mulberries were planted in England. They were part of James I’s doomed initiative to create a vibrant silk industry. Doomed because silkworms feed on the leaves of the white mulberry, Morus alba, a tree which requires a mild climate, and England at that time was still in the throes of a Little Ice Age. However, the black mulberry, Morus nigra, thrived and, for want of anything tastier, the silkworms fed on the leaves, but the silk they produced was coarse and brittle.

So, our silk industry may have failed but we gained an abundance of mulberry trees up and down the country, and rather lovely they are, with their generous leaves and sinuous branches that lean and bend low to the ground. They provide excellent cover for toddler hide-and-seek and perhaps for a bit of grownup outdoor nookie too. 

Mulberry Day 2022 dawned. The Lord Mayor and his consort arrived. Yet another arcane ceremony for them to attend, probably a typical engagement in their year of office. July 19th was the day the temperature in London reached 36 Celsius so no velvet or ermine was worn. Speeches were delivered and the berries were presented in a bowl fashioned from the wood of a fallen mulberry tree. Strictly speaking, they weren't the first fruits. The birds had had first dibs, as witness the indelible purple splatters of pigeon poop along our garden paths.

The assembled Charterhouse Brothers snacked on the surplus mulberries that, lacking perfection, hadn’t made it into the final presentation cut. I can vouch for the intense deliciousness of the fruit. It is the racy, lipstick-wearing cousin to the maiden aunt blackberry. Sadly, it doesn’t keep. You must harvest the berries and eat them within hours, a point we emphasised to the Lord Mayor but he confided that he had the Chancellor of the Exchequer dropping by for a banquet that evening and the chef was already at work on dessert. Maybe the kitchen staff got to eat those mulberries. I very much hope so.

1 comment:

Sue Purkiss said...

A few years ago we were on holiday in Spain, in the Alpujarra. In the garden were some trees we didn't recognise, with fruit like outsized blackberries. We eventually identified them as mulberries. They were utterly delicious - but as you say, they don't keep; and they're almost impossible to pick without getting covered in juice. Worth it, though.