Italy and the Mulberry Tree

Money, Silk, Food and Shade in Italian Gardens

Left: A mulberry canopy when pruned annually Right: Mulberry fruits

In almost every authentic Tuscan garden one can find an ancient Mulberry (or 'Gelso' or 'Moro)) tree, with a large canopy and very thick, gnarled trunk. This curious tree can grow for eighty to a hundred years or more and in Tuscany the mulberry's large canopy is always pruned drastically every year to promote the growth of proliferate, green leaves. These leaves would then have been sold to the silk industry to provide food for the voracious silk-worm, in order to satisfy the huge demand for high quality silk in the 18th and 19th Centuries

In a poverty stricken, colonial society, like that of Tuscany in the 18 hundreds, the mulberry leaves provided the only source of real income to the peasant farmer, as it provided an instant cash crop.

Left: Silk worms on mulberry leaves Right: A period Italian silk dress

Left: Mulberry leaves Right: Mulberry leaves in autumn

A native of Asia, the mulberry can grow to around 15m or more and it can survive in the poorest and driest of soils, making it ideal for the Italian countryside. There are still small pockets of land in Sicily that still farm the tree on a small scale. The small black fruits of the mulberry, produced en masse in late summer resemble blackberrys (Mori) and give the tree one of it's common names il Moro, are very sweet and can be used to flavour ice-creams and as a colorant for other deserts.

From a garden design perspective, the mulberry tree offers a very symbolic, socio-political statement, as it stands as a testament to the resistance of the Italian farmers against the aristocracy in a very difficult and harsh Colonial social system. It also provides great shade and spectacular autumn colours.

Above: A typical Italian farmhouse with a Mulberry tree Above: Leaf and fruit of the mulberry

The fruit of the white mulberry have a deep red colour and in Greek legend the berries of the white mulberry adopted their deep red colour when its roots were bathed by the blood of the lovers Pyramis and Thisbe, who killed themselves together.

Above: Mosaic of Pyramis and Thisbe

For a traditional effect the mulberry tree requires hard pruning back to the trunk during the winter in order to reduce it's canopy to a minimum, however the tree is just as beautiful when left to reach it's natural size.

By Jonathan Radford