The Ancient Tree Forum's vision is: "for ancient and other veteran trees, their wildlife, and their heritage and cultural values to be safeguarded now and in the future".
We recently had a visit from volunteer verifier Judy Dowling from Fife in Scotland, whose special area of interest is Morus nigra's, the Black Mulberries. Judy surveyed the mulberries at Shakespeare's Birthplace, New Place and Hall's Croft and she was amazed by our collection.
The story goes that James I wanted to wrest the monopoly of silk making from the French by cultivating mulberries, the sole food of the silkworms. He had a four acre mulberry garden planted in an area to the north of the present day Buckingham palace, tended by the King's mulberry men. There is still a street called Mulberry Walk, just off the King's Road in Chelsea near to the original site.
Ten thousand trees were imported from all over Europe, and the king required landowners “to purchase and plant mulberry trees at the rate of six shillings per thousand”. But James made the mistake – some say he was deliberately wrongly advised by the perfidious French – of ordering the black mulberry instead of the white version.
The latter is the natural food of silkworms but grows less well in England. Within a few years the silkworm project failed, though the mulberry garden survived and became a pleasure ground before being swept away in the rebuilding of Buckingham Palace.
The tree’s popularity wasn’t confined to the capital. There are many ancient mulberries in Stratford-upon-Avon, mainly in the various gardens run by us here at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
William Shakespeare was familiar with the staining quality of ripe mulberries and mentions them in several plays. Coriolanus, for example, holds his head low “now humble as the ripest mulberry that will not hold the handling”.
Judy is applying for funding to do DNA analysis of several of the country's oldest specimens to see whether any share the same genes as some of the world's oldest surviving ones.