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Open Features: Ancient Roots Bear Modern Fruits

…The tree was leafless in the starkness of mid winter and lay with most of its limbs resting on the floor. Its trunk was split and decaying, but like some old warrior, felled but not beaten, the gnarled branches were already budding up for a new lease of life in the spring. How many years has it been part of the scene, watched over children at play and offered its fruit to anyone quick enough to gather it in before the blackbirds? A notice board hanging nearby would have us believe the best part of six centuries and there is nothing to doubt that it could be right…

Mary Basham traces the link between an ancient Mulberry tree and the founding of a New World.

Pretend you are sitting in Mastermind’s ‘Black Chair’ and try this for a question. Name three famous people associated with a Mulberry tree?

The Cambridge colleges provide fertile ground to dig up connections. Milton is said to have written memorable works under the one in Christ’s, Erasmus to have had a hand in the establishment of the specimen at Queens’, and the 16th century poet, Spenser connections with the tree in Pembroke College garden.

If you are a keen gardener you might also know that James I was so entranced with the idea of feeding silkworms on Mulberry leaves that he planted a number of trees. Unfortunately of the wrong sort to satisfy silkworms taste buds. But would you have any idea about the Mulberry’s link with one of the founding fathers of the New World? Until a few days ago I certainly didn’t, despite the fact that early settler history is supposed to be one of my subjects.

On a recent freezing cold, blustery day I made the trek to Groton, a tiny village tucked away in south Suffolk’s gently undulating farmland. After paying my respects at the ancient flint church, I pulled up the collar of my coat and braved the heavy mud to walk several hundred yards along a footpath. It headed to The Croft, a piece of common land sandwiched by a triangle country roads. There in the middle of the area was a Mulberry tree thought to have been planted by Adam Winthrop, grandfather of John, leader of the Winthrop fleet and first Governor of Massachusetts.

The tree was leafless in the starkness of mid winter and lay with most of its limbs resting on the floor. Its trunk was split and decaying, but like some old warrior, felled but not beaten, the gnarled branches were already budding up for a new lease of life in the spring. How many years has it been part of the scene, watched over children at play and offered its fruit to anyone quick enough to gather it in before the blackbirds? A notice board hanging nearby would have us believe the best part of six centuries and there is nothing to doubt that it could be right.

Was the tree just reaching its half-century when the young John left the village to study at Trinity, Cambridge in 1605? Was it in full flower when he wed Margaret Tyndal in April 1618 and was it just coming into fruit in July 1629 when he rode off to begin planning the exodus of disillusioned Puritans to a brave new world? If only the tree could talk.

The Winthrop fleet set sail in 1630, eleven ships in all, the first five leaving in April and the remained sailing a month later. Around 700 passengers in all, eager to escape the restrictions of Charles I’s England and pursue religious freedom elsewhere. Among them were so many sons and daughters of Suffolk and the surrounding counties that the roll call resembles an East Anglian directory. John Bigges, John Boggust, Benjamn Brand, Henry Bright and no less than seven Browne’s to name but a few under one letter. The world was right for change and their instinct was to take it.

John Winthrop took with him three other kin, including sons Stephen and Samuel. His wife followed with the rest of the family a few months later. Their struggles and ultimate success in forming the Massachusetts colony - and in particular, Boston - of which John remained Governor until his death in 1649, is a well-documented story.

It would be easy to glamorise the whole saga and see it as nothing more than an ‘adventure’ that paid off, but that would be very wrong. The bravery and sheer dogged determination of those settlers was, on a scale of one to ten, a good ten and a half. Hardship must have been relentless, however in the odd moments when they did have the chance to take their ease it is likely that they reminisced about the ‘old country’ the same as any modern day ex-pat. Did they I wonder, those who had their roots in Groton, think fondly of the Mulberry tree, the taste of its fruit and the pleasure of its shade?


It would be fanciful to think that a cutting from the Groton Mulberry sailed with John Winthrop on that epic voyage and that somewhere in Massachusetts there is an offshoot marking the years like its parent. Sadly there is no evidence to support this. Although Mulberry trees were part of the earlier 1605 Jamestown expedition, they, like the settlers, met a bitter end. Historical records suggest that it was nearer to the mid 1700s before Mulberries took root with firm intentions in American soil.

The author of The Builders of the Bay Colony (1930), Prof. Samuel Morison, wrote:

“Groton today is a tiny village on a hillside, overlooking the market town of Boxford in Suffolk. The site of Groton Manor, the home of the Winthrops, is marked by an ancient mulberry-tree…”

Long may it remain to remind us that ancient roots can still have the strength to bear modern fruit.

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