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The Magical Mulberry-Part II

That this wonderful tree has played a seminal role in providing to the civilized world, one of the finest products of nature representing both luxury and beauty; and remains an abiding tribute to both the enterprise and refinement of human race, does not take away from it the privilege of being  a very fetching and graceful tree in its own right.
The Botany
Mulberry belongs to Morus genus of family Moraceae and is dispersed over 10 species of small to medium-sized trees. They all bear sweet edible fruits. Native to temperate Asia and North America, many of these   species are cultivated for their fruits and as ornamentals. Their leaves, of course, are the staple for the silkworms.
Among its many species, the red mulberry (Morus rubra) of eastern North America is the largest of the genus, often reaching a height of 21 metres (70 feet). It has two-lobed, three-lobed, or unlobed leaves and dark purple edible fruits.
White mulberry (M. alba), native to Asia but long cultivated in southern Europe, is so called because of the white fruits it bears. It is naturalized in eastern North America. Several useful varieties of the white mulberry are the cold-resistant Russian mulberry (M. alba, variety tatarica), introduced into western North America for shelterbelts and local timber use, and fruitless ones such as the ‘Stribling’ and ‘Mapleleaf’ cultivars. The weeping mulberry (M. alba ‘Pendula’) is frequently used as a lawn tree.
Black mulberry (M. nigra), the most common species, is a native of western Asia that spread westward in cultivation at an early period. Up to the 15th century it was extensively grown in Italy for raising silkworms, but it has since been superseded by white mulberry. Now an introduced species in North America, it is mainly cultivated for its large juicy purple-black fruits, which are superior in flavour to those of red mulberry.
Mulberries are deciduous and have toothed, sometimes lobed leaves that are alternately arranged along the stems. Individuals can be monoecious (bearing both male and female flowers) or dioecious (bearing only male or female flowers). The minute flowers are borne in tight catkin clusters. Each fruit develops from an entire flower cluster and is formally known as a multiple. The fruits somewhat resemble blackberries and ripen to white, pink, red, or purple.
Impact on Economies
Mulberry fruits are delicious, and also a source of nutrition. But its role as the one that feeds and nourishes the silkworm is exceptionally significant. But for it, there would be no silkworm and thereby no silk, the same silk that has scripted the economic destiny of many a nation.

As the originator of silk production, China enjoyed significant economic benefits from silk trade. For centuries, silk was among China's chief exports, bringing substantial wealth and enhancing its cultural influence abroad. The wealth generated by silk trade enabled dynastic China to invest in large-scale projects like the Great Wall and the Grand Canal.
Japan developed its silk industry later than China, with sericulture taking off significantly during the Edo period (1603-1868). By the 19th century, Japan had become a major silk exporter, especially following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, which modernized the industry with Western technologies and practices. Silk exports became a key component of Japan’s industrialization and contributed to its rise as an economic power.
India too has a long history of silk production, known not only for mulberry silk but also for its other variants like Tussar and Muga. Silk was a major part of India's economy and was exported to many regions, including the Roman Empire. In the 17th to 19th centuries, Indian silk goods were highly prized both in Europe and in other parts of Asia.

The trade contributed to regional prosperity and was a significant source of wealth for many princely states within India.
Soft Power
The cultivation of mulberry trees and the production of silk, thus, go beyond  merely an agricultural or even industrial activities but became a catalyst for economic growth, international trade, and cultural exchange. The historical impact of silk on countries like China, Japan, and India underscores its role in shaping not just economies but also influencing global trade patterns and diplomatic relations. This "soft power" of silk has had a lasting influence on the historical trajectories of these nations.
A Benefactor Par Excellence
The range of boons that the Mulberry tree showers on humans is remarkably diverse. Their delectable fruits not only regale us but also sustain a variety of animals like deer, birds, and insects, making them an essential food source during scarcity. These trees also create habitats for diverse wildlife, attract pollinators crucial for their reproduction, improve soil health with their deep roots, and require minimal upkeep once firmly rooted. Furthermore, their aesthetic appeal adds beauty to any landscape, making them a delightful addition to gardens or Parks. 
An Abiding Regret
But coming back to where I began, by the time I post this blog those luscious, sweet fruits would have rained on the ground either because of the breeze or because someone like me may have shaken its branches. I can visualise clearly the white and purple coloured carpet, mushy but bright, laid on the ground, a reminder of the transience of a beautiful life, so ready to generously give both a delectable fruit, and a sustaining  nourishment to anyone who cares to come to it. 
And yet, perish unlamented not once but year after year. 

(Uday Kumar Varma is an IAS officer. Retired as Secretary, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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