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7 september 2020

Till a few years ago, we had a mulberry tree in our back yard. It was a cultivar of Morus alba, the white mulberry that feeds silkworms. Of course we had no silkworms, and we ended up not having the tree very long. White mulberries are crumbly and short-lived as trees go. This one, planted by previous residents who wanted something fast-growing, soon needed to be taken out – lest it fall and take itself and our utility lines and the neighbors' chicken coop with it.

Peter Coles is aware that the mulberry is inextricable from the silkworm and the manufacture of silk. He even warns himself against diving too far into silk history, does it anyway, and then apologizes for the dive. Yet he regroups in time to devote much of Mulberry to the tree itself and its various salient parts. At that, Mulberry can be repetitive. Though it's not a long book, it seems to make several passes through the global history of mulberries.

Black mulberries, less good for silk, are the ones that bear delicious fruit but are less often planted because that fruit is so messy. Red mulberries, native to the Americas, are disappearing, hybridizing with imported Old World white mulberries. There really are only three true types of Morus, the black, red, and white; but local varieties can have unusual properties. Japanese Shimakuwa mulberry absorbs volcanic gases to produce beautiful wood for craft objects. And Morus microphylla, native to Texas, grows as a dwarf shrub in arid conditions in the west of the state.

Coles is fascinated by the mulberries of England. Native to Asia, mulberries have been continually imported and reimported into Western Europe to feed silk speculation. King James I of England was particularly obsessed with mulberries and had them planted all over the country, where some (or more likely their offspring) still mark the orchards of old estates. Similar material mulberry histories are present in France and Italy, and can be read in rugged venerable trees from long-gone silk plantations.

Mulberries do not figure much in the arts – they are likelier to figure as the material of art itself, as in Japanese woodworking. Van Gogh painted an impressive mulberry tree just after losing his ear. Most Anglophone children can sing "Here we go round the mulberry bush," but other mulberry appearances in literature and poetry are few: a couple of mentions in Shakespeare, a couple in Virginia Woolf. As Coles notes, even Alessandro Baricco ignores the host tree in his silkworm-smuggling novel Seta (1996; filmed in 2007 as Silk).

The fruit of the black mulberry does not travel; eating them off the tree, which I've gotten to do at random junctures in my life, is the best way to enjoy them. White mulberries, by contrast, can be dried and shipped. On-line reviews of dried white mulberries suggest that they are chewy and tasteless, so maybe right off the tree is the best bet there too. The mulberry in our yard was a fruitless variety (again, can't have that mess). It was really good for just about nothing. Despite their high economic profile, mulberries can seem frivolous trees. They exemplify enjoyment. Even processed through the guts of their guest worms, they turn into luxurious cloth that humans don't seem to deserve. Mulberries make our lives better and one hopes that we in some way return the favor.

Coles, Peter. Mulberry. London: Reaktion, 2019.