Anyone who walks around the streets of Rye in late June or early July can’t help notice them: large numbers of white or dark red “berries” lying on the sidewalks.
By Bill Lawyer
Anyone who walks around the streets of Rye in late June or early July can’t help notice them: large numbers of white or dark red “berries” lying on the sidewalks. If you look up, you’ll see they’ve fallen from the branches of what look like either large shrubs or small trees – often with multiple trunks spreading out, reaching a height of 15 to 30 feet.
These are mulberry trees. Technically, their droppings aren’t berries but aggregate fruits known scientifically as “drupes.” We’ll refer to them by their common name.
You can see a mulberry tree growing along Rye Beach Avenue, next to the Rye Town Park stone wall. Another can be found on Forest Avenue near Oakland Beach Avenue.
For many people, their first experience with mulberries is the children’s playtime nursery rhyme, “Here we go ‘round the mulberry bush.”
No doubt the rhyme got its title because mulberry bushes or trees were very common going back many centuries, both in England and the American colonies.
Many of the mulberry bushes in Rye were not planted here on purpose. They easily grow by the spread of the seeds in the berries eaten by birds and other wildlife. Some people consider them a nuisance because they are somewhat messy when they fall to the ground.
And yet people sometimes tolerate the trees because they are hardy and provide food and shelter for wildlife.
The ripe fruit – particularly the black mulberries — are very sweet and comparable to raspberries and blackberries, without the thorns. They’re low in calories and high in vitamin C and iron.
Behind these modest trees, and their potential food value, lies a fascinating history – particularly the white berry varieties that are native to China.
Going back thousands of years, silk has been a highly valuable textile, prized the world over. The Chinese and other Asian peoples devised a way of “farming” the silk worm caterpillars by setting up barns where the worms were fed their favorite and only food – mulberry leaves.
The silk worms are the caterpillar stage of a particular species of moth. As with all caterpillars, they eventually build cocoons or pupa, which then leads to their metamorphosis into adult moths. Once they mate, the females lay eggs, which hatch into caterpillars – thus completing the circle of life, insect-style. The silkworm farmers take the cocoons and convert them into thread for weaving highly valued fabrics.
So readers may be asking – what does all this have to do with those mulberry bushes growing around Rye?
Over the hundreds of years that world trade developed after the explorations by European navigators, merchants and businessmen were lured into devising ways to cut out the Asian part of the silk trade equation. Why, they asked, can’t we bring mulberry trees and silkworms here, and make our own silk?
France in particular put a lot of time and money into promoting silk farming in Provence and other southern parts of the country. The history of their efforts is widely known.
Less well known is the fact that nearly all the founders of the North American colonies had developing a silk industry on their to-do lists.
For example, textile historian Gary Mock recounts that, “James I tried to compel Virginia tobacco planters to stop cultivating tobacco, plant mulberry trees and sustain silk worms to supply raw silk to English factories. As early as 1623, he decreed that a planter would be fined £10 if he did not cultivate at least ten mulberry trees for every 100 acres of his plantation.”
Back in the early 18th century, thousands of mulberry bushes were brought to Georgia, South Carolina, and even New York and Connecticut.
As late as the 1830s a mulberry investment “bubble” occurred in the northeast, where the price of “new and improved” varieties of mulberries went from $4 to $30 per hundred in just two years. Even the so-called panic of 1837 couldn’t stop the buying and selling madness.
What logic couldn’t stop, the realities of nature could: farmers found that the new varieties couldn’t withstand the cold winters and a blight in 1844 drove growers out of business.
Most historians of the silk industry agree that the main problem wasn’t the climate or pests, but rather the fact that the production of silk is extremely labor intensive. European and North Americans weren’t willing to work that hard, when better and easier profits could be made growing cotton (or tobacco).
Nevertheless, Rye and other communities still have significant communities of mulberry bushes, which are doing quite nicely, right in our backyards.