A 300 year-old mulberry tree at Wanstead Golf Club has split in two – a victim of the summer’s hot, dry weather. But this is just the beginning of a more recumbent phase of old age, says Peter Coles
Since Roman times, mulberries have been planted in London for their delicious fruit and medicinal virtues. Today’s trees help to tell this tale.
I first visited the veteran black mulberry tree (Morus nigra) at hole seven on Wanstead Golf Course in 2018. I was invited to do so by local resident and mulberry enthusiast Claire Weiss, and I remember being excited to add it to the Morus Londinium database. Morus Londinium is The Conservation Foundation’s mulberry mapping project in London. This particular mulberry could date back to the 1720s, perhaps planted as a fruit tree in the kitchen gardens of the (long since demolished) Wanstead House.
It therefore came as quite a shock when Bob Ward, manager of Wanstead Golf Club, informed Claire the tree had split in half during the very hot, dry weather of August, which had been followed by strong winds.
But, like many other veteran mulberry trees that collapse, this is just the beginning of a new phase. “The collapse of this tree should not be seen as a catastrophe but rather as a natural progression in its continued growth. Without doing anything, the natural order will be for some of the branches, now touching the ground, to root and grow independently of the parent trunk. The part still upright will also lean over and, at some point, do the same. Our oldest mulberry trees have all lost their original trunks and survive as a collection of stems rooted in this way,” said dendrologist David Alderman, who helped assess the damage.
Not so long ago, when an old tree like this keeled over, the urge would have been to think it was dead, or at least to chop up and remove the fallen section. Nowadays – and especially in the case of the Wanstead Golf Club mulberry, which has lots of room around it – the advice is to leave it alone.
According to David, the size and age of the Wanstead mulberry qualify it for the national hall of fame: “The size of the tree makes this a remarkable specimen! I measured the tree to be 7.5m tall x 2.97m girth at 0.8m above ground level. Very few mulberry have intact measurable trunks of circa 3m in girth and although not the oldest mulberry, this is the second largest, most intact mulberry in Greater London… Out of 500 specimen mulberry in Britain, the Wanstead tree is 9th largest when comparing only those surviving with a clearly identifiable short trunk.”
This said, black mulberry trees can live for several centuries under the right conditions, but their long, spreading branches may need to be supported. Wanstead Golf Club is very proud of its venerable tree and has assured us they will do whatever is needed to preserve it. We will follow this story with great interest in the months to come.