Missing your mulberry? Help track down these historic, royal trees

 The Lesnes Mulberry
They were once favoured by James I and contributed to the Queen’s wedding dress – now you can aid in the uncovering of Britain’s mulberry heritage Credit: Alamy

Some trees are the stuff of legend and the mulberry, with its ancient gnarled bark and blood-red stained fruit, is one. Ovid tells of Pyramus and Thisbe who tragically met and died under a mulberry; the Romans planted them in England before the fifth century; the monks grew them in infirmary gardens in their monasteries; and they were much prized for their fruit and shade by the Elizabethans. The oldest mulberry, planted in 1548, still flourishes in Syon Park, west of London.

Take your pick: mulberries can be found throughout London

We all know the story of James I’s big mistake. He planted 10,000 black mulberries all over the country to rival France’s silk industry, only to find he’d chosen a variety the silkworms didn’t eat. Maybe his choice wasn’t so off track: black mulberries prefer our climate, and the white probably wouldn’t have survived.

A later silk-farming attempt in 1930 by Lady Hart Dyke at Lullingstone Castle resulted in wedding dresses and coronation robes for the Queen and Queen Mother, but the 20-acre plantation of white mulberries was later grubbed up. The Queen seems to have retained an affection for them, because Buckingham Palace holds the National Collection of mulberries – and garden party guests can be literally caught red-handed after sampling them.

Finicky to pick, the best way is to place a plastic sheet under the tree and shake the branches

Even now, these propped and leaning legends still populate the country in parks, stately homes, old orchards and private gardens. I remember a tree in Peckham, south London, where we lived in 1975, that leant over a garden wall and stained the pavement blood red.

My toddlers used to love being pushed under it to ghoulish screams – a bit near the knuckle in those days in deepest south London.

Now, the Conservation Foundation is hoping to document the capital’s horticultural ancients with a new project, Morus Londinium, that contributes to the National Biodiversity Network’s database. The foundation invites Londoners to visit the website and help uncover and record this heritage, adding mulberry trees to the survey.

Saplings propagated from cuttings taken from a James I specimen in the Chelsea Physic Garden (sadly cut down to build a bomb shelter) are available free to London schools and non-profit groups, including heritage sites and community orchards.

From the end of July, black mulberries start to ripen from green to red to luscious dark purple. Finicky to pick, the best way is to place a plastic sheet under the tree and shake the branches. Handle with care or they’ll disintegrate to a red sticky mush. Eat as many as you can; they don’t store well – a couple of days if left floating in a bowl of cold water in the fridge. Make gin or jam if you have a surfeit.

If you’re sadly mulberry-poor, Wilkin & Sons have a large black mulberry orchard where fruit is still hand-picked to produce its fabulous Tiptree mulberry conserve.