Old World Mulberry History

Old World Mulberry History
Mulberries were grown during ancient times. The ancient Greeks as well as
the Romans cultivated the plants. These were apparently the black mulberry, which according to legend, grew in the garden of the Hesperides, located in a mythical grove near the Atlas Mountains in Greece.

Pliny the Elder includes a description of mulberry in his writings. The ancient Romans reportedly introduced the trees to Britain, Spain, and France.

The plant is mentioned in the Bible in Luke 17:6, “If you had the faith as big as a mustard seed, you could say to the mulberry tree, “Pull yourself up by the roots and plant yourself in the sea!” and it would obey you.”

The ancient Egyptians also raised mulberry trees. By 550 A.D. they were using draw looms for patterned silk weaving to produce limited quantities of silk. However, linen remained the fabric of choice in ancient Egypt. The Canopic Way located in ancient Alexandria, Egypt, was adorned with silk during Cleopatra’s time. Egyptian government officials were responsible for seeing that mulberry trees were planted at the appropriate time. It isn’t clear whether the Egyptians grew the trees for silkworm food or for the fruits.

According to Aristotle, silk was spun on the island of Cos in Asia Minor with the trees being planted for the worms.

The Byzantine Emperor Justinian succeeded in 552 A.D. in obtaining both mulberry seeds and silkworm eggs from China. These were hidden in a hollow bamboo cane and smuggled out of the country. They were delivered to Constantinople where the emperor established a silk industry in the imperial palace.

Mulberry was one of the fruits grown in eastern Islamic gardens by around 1000 A.D. Silkworm culture and manufacturing arrived in other parts of the West after the fall of Rome. This was introduced by the Saracens in the 12th century. It later spread to other parts of Europe, including Italy in the 14th century, Lyons in 1315, Tuscany in 1434, and the Rhone Valley around 1520.

Louis XI introduced silk weaving to Tours in 1480. The trees grown in France did much better than those introduced to England. In the 17th century, the French government encouraged people to plant the trees for the silkworms and paid them premiums for doing so.

Eventually, silkworm culture succeeded in some parts of Europe so that in 1875, Europe produced 46% of the world’s silk.

Meanwhile, in England, James I also encouraged people to plant mulberry trees for silkworms not only at home but also in the American colonies as well. He planted four acres of the trees in a site that is now located where Buckingham Palace stands.

The English royal family fed the worms and spun the silk into thread. These efforts produced enough silk for the queen to have a complete outfit made from the fabric. She wore this silk clothing on the king’s birthday.

Yet, the English effort to produce silk was less than successful partly because they weren’t growing the species preferred by the silkworms. The British, Irish, and Colonial Silk Company went public in 1825 and attempted unsuccessfully to introduce silkworms to Ireland.

During the reign of Henry VI, French Protestant weavers either in in 1619 or in 1685 (sources disagree on the date) were allowed to establish a silk industry in Spitalfields in East London, but they largely used imported silk fiber rather than domestically produced English cocoons.

In certain cases in England, silkworm culture and mulberries was a success. Lullingstone Castle and Farm has been described as “the country’s first such farm.” They planted 20 acres of mulberries for the worms.

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