Once there were many mulberry trees in the Tuscan valley where I am writing this. Now I can only find the one in the photo. I can remember when it was covered in berries, sticky and sweet. But the leaves are more important.

Seventy years ago there must have been many more. Mulberry leaves used to be spread out over the loft floors of country people’s dwellings for silkworms to munch out of sight of the bailiffs. Perhaps they did know but did not tell the absentee landlords that there was a hidden economy actively pursued in their properties. After all, the peasants were supposed to cultivate the land in exchange for the house they lived in and the patch of earth around it for their pigs and chickens. Seventy years ago there were a lot of mulberry trees and a considerable amount of raw silk produced to be sold to the middlemen who took it away to weave into luxury cloth for distant markets. Silk was a nice little untaxed way of earning extra money to buy shoes and garments that country folk could not make for themselves.

I have wondered why the song ‘Round and round the mulberry tree’ was sung, and remain unconvinced that it was a way to ward off the plague. Perhaps it is more likely that it was a celebration of the food for silkworms who provided this much needed hidden economy. I was told some time ago that a landowner’s wife had given used bed sheets for a young countrywoman to sew her own wedding clothes. There was plenty of it, and she could cut out the worn parts, of course.

Times have changed. Abandoned farmhouses are now renovated into modern homes and the mulberry trees are no longer needed, though this one remains, a sentinel to the past before stockings that did not ladder were brought back by soldiers to give to their girlfriends. Nylon stockings avoided the embarrassment of a ladder appearing, usually up the back of the leg where one might not notice it until too late! They also finished off the cottage industry of cash-strapped peasants.


Restored house where mulberry leaves were dried

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