Collecting the folklore and uses of plants


Mulberry, Morus nigra, a small tree native to central Asia, has been cultivated in Britain for its edible  fruits since at least the mid-sixteenth century

According to T.F. Thiselton-Dyer, in his Folk-lore of Plants, 1889: ‘In Western Counties it is asserted that frost ceases as soon as the mulberry bursts into leaf’.

The mention of mulberry in children’s game ‘Here we go round the mulberry bush’ has stimulated some speculation:  why mulberry? One explanation is that mulberry bushes were planted in prison exercise-yards, so prisoners walked around them when taking their daily exercise.  Another suggestion, apparently dating from the 1970s, explained: ‘The knights who were intent on killing Thomas à Becket first hung their swords on a mulberry tree …  They scalped the Saint singing ‘this is the way we do our hair’.  They washed their hands afterwards to get red of the guilt, and said their prayers around the body’.  However, although the best known version of the game features mulberry, other versions mention, barberry (Berberis vulgaris), bramble (Rubus fruticosus), gooseberry (Ribes uva-crispa) and at least three other species.

Inevitably some older mulberry trees are allegedly associated associated with various historical personages; trees associated with John Milton (1608-74) at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) in Streatham, London, are discussed elsewhere on this website.

Adapted from Roy Vickery, Vickery’s Folk Flora, 2019.

Images:  main, Doddington Hall, Lincolnshire, August 2020; inset, tree, ‘over 150 years old, we think’, garden of Rainham Hall, London Borough of Havering, March 2022.

Edited 10 March 2022.