I’m not making this up. A young woman from Virginia, a friend of my son, was visiting our home for a crab feast over Labor Day and noted two big old mulberry trees on our property. I for one had never seen anyone get excited about a mulberry tree (aka, “that trash tree”), except for the grandkids who, when little, liked climbing along the misshapen trunks of one particularly weird old specimen.
It happens this young lady, Eliza, is an heirloom orchardist and a fruit historian. She also raises pigs, but I’ll get to that later. She is Secretary of the North American Fruit Explorers Association, and has done genetic research in Kyrgyzstan where, she explains, 70% of the fruit we grow in the US originated. Kyrgyzstan is situated on the Silk Road, which conveniently segues us back to those mulberry trees.
Do you already know the fabulous story of Talbot County’s plunge into the silk business? The context was that American farmers, including ours, were caught in a long-running depression that arose when peace came to Europe after the Napoleonic wars. All the European farmers went back to work, and exports of American agricultural products–especially grain—took a nosedive. (Does the problem of falling grain exports somehow sound familiar?) Something needed to be done.
Around 1838, ignited apparently by a huckster from Pennsylvania, the idea of getting rich (quick) on silk spread like wildfire in Talbot County; every Tom, Dick and Harry went in whole hog. Folks would make silk from the cocoons of silkworms, which would spin this gold just by eating the leaves of Morus multicaulis, a particular species of ancient mulberry tree from China. And it happened that this Pennsylvanian, Mr. Whitemarsh, had an inexhaustible supply of mulberry shoots of that particular species available for purchase! What could go wrong?
“Silkworm mania ‘seized nearly everyone who could raise even a few dollars, while some even mortgaged their farms…Every available spot was used for setting out their plants. Farmers planted down their fields and citizens of the Town (Easton) filled up their gardens.’ One Easton paper estimated that by 1839 one hundred thousand trees had been planted within one mile of town.” Three silk companies were formed in Talbot County.
“Then the bubble burst. Someone made the discovery that in order to produce silk it was necessary not only to grow trees but to cultivate silk worms and extract fibers from the cocoons without destroying them.” Who knew? By 1841 everybody had lost their shirts—silk shirts, cotton shirts, whatever. All they gave us was one of the most colorful tales in our local history…and Mulberry Station as the name for a local community and local apartment complex, one or the other presumably on the site of the Talbot County Silk Company. Eliza found that Company’s April 1839 board minutes, attached.
(All of my information on this, and the quotes above, come from Dickson J. Preston’s wonderful Talbot County, A History published in 1983, a book that should be in every home in Talbot. I am also sure that the Talbot Historical Society and the Maryland Room at the Library both have much more information that could enlighten and entertain you even more should you be interested.)
Labor Day 2019. Eliza discovers with some excitement two big old mulberries at what was an old farmstead along the Miles. She recognizes they are not Morus ruba, our boring native mulberry. They are either Mors alba or Morus multicaulis, silk related species from China. She asks about what we know, and remembering that chapter, out comes Preston’s history to fill in the story to Eliza’s surprise and delight.
But now here’s the great part. In her own words, this is why Eliza is excited to encounter these remnant trees: “I’m trying to find these old silk mulberry trees because the genetics come from Asia, where silk culture is 6,000+ years old. They have been selecting mulberries for higher protein content (among other characteristics) for a very long time because silkworms thrive on it. I’m finding that cows, pigs and chickens also thrive on silkworm mulberry cultivars (eating the leaves). So, I’m working on building a genetic repository of mulberries for livestock farmers to incorporate into their pastures in specific ways. The idea isn’t mainstream by any means, but I’m hoping it could be!” And Eliza, whose degree is in forestry, is heading for China in the spring to learn more about the cultivation of Morus multicaulis.
Eliza advocates for the idea of having livestock feed in orchards, perennials of which mulberry is just one. Her website is hogtree.com. If you are interested in this project or have information you think Eliza would like to know, you can reach her at email@example.com.
Now I’m thinking this idea–letting pigs feed on protein-rich mulberry fruits and leaves–is probably going to make someone a fortune. Could be you! I happen to have a large supply of shoots available for the discerning buyer. Prices available on request.
Dan Watson is the former chair of Bipartisan Coalition For New Council Leadership and has lived in Talbot County for the last twenty-five years.