The View from Swamptown: South County’s White Mulberry Trees Born of a Dream | The view from Swamptown
Strange as it may sound, I think it’s fair to say that the 15-foot-tall Chinese white mulberry tree that has successfully established itself in my front yard natural garden notifies me every morning when I leave my house in the west of North Kingstown to direct me to the village of Wickford. The songbirds I am trying to attract with this planned “natural” area love this young mulberry tree and I have to say that this tree, one of the first documented “invasive species” in New England, pleases me as well. Sure, it’s a bit messy with its multitude of sweet, sticky berries each summer, but this tree, like all the other Chinese mulberry trees in South County, tells the story of an early 19th century entrepreneurial venture, if one only knows how to listen. And since North Kingstown celebrated its designation as an Arbor Day community last week, I thought we should do a little tree contemplation.
As the name suggests, and the “invasive species” label implies, the Chinese white mulberry just doesn’t belong here in South County. But despite that, as a species, it’s been here for about 190 years and has done pretty well; wisely establishing its species in numbers substantial enough to ensure its continuance in perpetuity, but not in numbers that elevate it to the level of nuisance attained by its eastern cousin the Japanese bittersweet vine. The interesting historical fact about the Chinese white mulberry, found to some extent along the eastern seaboard, with areas like South County possessing a higher localized concentration, is that they were imported here from the Far exotic Orient as part of a brave and daring, though ultimately unsuccessful, enterprise which began about 1832, modeled on earlier successful ventures in Massachusetts and Connecticut, when two gentleman farmers and 19th-century amateur botanists from Wickford, the Reverend Lemuel Burge, priest of Old Narragansett Church, and his friend Henry Congdon, an innkeeper who ran the Hotel Washington on Main Street, joined this growing group of businessmen audacious in New England, New Jersey, and various southeastern states, in an attempt to establish an American silk industry. Here in Rhode Island, only four men, Burge and Congdon of Wickford Village, North Providence farmer Samuel W. Greene and Foster botanist Solomon Drowne decided to try this potentially profitable industry. Congdon and Burge, as partners, planted an astonishing 15,000 Chinese mulberry seedlings in various orchard plots in the Wickford area beginning in 1832 and, after the trees took root, then imported caterpillars silkworms by the thousands and established them on the mulberry trees, the only source of food that the true silkworm caterpillars would accept. Indeed, the accepted wisdom of this period was that one acre of young mulberry trees possessed the potential to support 540,000 silkworms. Solomon Drowne, the famed Revolutionary War physician/surgeon and Gaspee co-conspirator, who was now established as Brown University’s first-ever professor of botany, reported on the progress of the Wickford-based company , together with his and that of Samuel W. Greene North Company based in Providence, in the professional journal “The New England Farmer & Horticulturalist” for most of the 1830s. This bold enterprise was, in many respects , a success; the four men reported that the mulberry trees and silkworm caterpillars/moths did well in this southern New England environment, producing viable quantities of truly American-made silk thread each year. . Burge actually won an award from the organization in 1835 for producing 4,900 skeins of sewing floss in a single season. Unfortunately, in the end, the quantities produced were never sufficient to reach a “critical mass” necessary for a truly financially sustainable industry and one by one the four men, as well as like-minded groups in the Valley of the Connecticut River, neighboring Massachusetts and New Jersey. agricultural land, abandoned the dream of being our country’s first silk magnates.
However, Chinese white mulberries never gave up and never left. Even though Henry Congdon and Lemuel Burge eventually returned their many orchard lots to more traditional fruit production, the Mulberries, whose lasting little seed spreads reliably in bird droppings, have established themselves for eternity, it seems, along the edges of the forest and in the unused farmhouse. fields all around south county. That’s right, they are, like true invaders, here to stay and benevolently inform all who will listen, about an age when daring businessmen who called South County their home, have imported their ancestors in bundles of expensive, closely-knit seedlings sent all the way from exotic China, to make something so American — Take the risk of a bold dream!
The author is the town historian of North Kingstown. The opinions expressed here are his own.