Father of colonial silk trade: In his finery, King James I, c. 1605, in style of John de Critz.

This Week’s Kent County History Quiz Question: Why does Kent County have a plethora of White Mulberry (Morus alba) among its hedgerows?

A. It is a hearty native species.

B. Small game and birds like the berries.

C. Remnants of the Kent County silk industry.

D. Species promoted the Maryland Forestry Service.

This Week’s Answer: C.  Remnants of Kent County silk industry.

Silk has always been treasured, and the thought that such a possession could not only bring esteem when worn, but wealth when produced, brought out great envy in the Western World of the geniuses making silk in the Far East.

The irresistible temptation of being able to gain prestige by simply planting fast-growing mulberry seeds and hatching silkworm eggs that turn into voracious caterpillars gorging themselves on the leaves and creating cocoons whose fibers, when unwound, become precious silk thread was too much for English King James l. In 1603, he decided that England should be as well endowed with silk as Italy and France, and the Colonists could do the work.  So the first round of the White Mulberry Tree (Morus alba) seed and silkworm eggs arrived in the New World.  Successive attempts to make silk were made, but were mostly unsuccessful financially.

Instead of depending only on nature, the later successful businesses combined natural with artificial means of providing  a consistent environment to support the lives of the silkworms.  That success never happened in Kent County though attempts were made.  One of the last local investment schemes we can verify was in 1836 when some businessmen purchased land in Queen Anne’s County on the “south side of the Corsica Creek and planted it in mulberry trees to raise silkworms for making silk.”  That turned out to be a failure and “nothing more was heard.”

Another cryptic mention was in the early 20th century when the reference was more about  the financial loss than the planting of mulberry trees.  The introduction of synthetic fabrics also curtailed much of the silk industry.  Rayon was the first of these.

Meanwhile, the trees have proliferated.  Mulberries tend to cross easily, often by wind.  Their berries are favorites of the birds and rather purgative, so many seeds are sown.

Morus alba (White Mulberry), a native of China, seems to thrive under any conditions.   It is considered as having “escaped and become naturalized,” which, in many areas,  means “out of control.”

Morus rubra (Red Mulberry) is a North American native.  It is a more attractive tree and could have landscape value.

On the brighter side, if the berries appeal, they do not all ripen at once so that one can sample a few and return days later for a few more.

The Kent County History Quiz is a weekly local brainteaser sponsored by The Peoples Bank. Kent County historian and author Joan Horsey and columnist Kate Meehan contribute to the quiz’s development. Our goal is to create an opportunity for local learning and discussion. If you have a quiz idea, send it to steve@kentpilot.org.