According to tradition, a mulberry tree was planted at Christ’s College in Cambridge the same year that John Milton was born (1608). The tree shaded the poet when he went up to university as an undergraduate, and survives in what is now the Fellow’s Garden.
I never visited the garden when I lived in Cambridge. At busy times in life, and in cities that offer much, it is easy to postpone the sights, but we move away before tomorrow arrives. So while I was staying in college last week, I took the opportunity to see the famous tree.
It is now a sprawling mass of shoots rising little more than fifteen feet. The trunk rotted away long ago and horizontal branches are propped up like the arms of old men leaning on canes. A less venerable tree would have been axed long ago to make way for a pretty flower bed.
Even in Victorian times when the tree was barely two centuries old there were worries that it would not last much longer. “Time’s effacing finger must at no distant season sweep it entirely away from its much honoured site. Serious apprehension is entertained of the tree not being able to survive through another winter” (Eliza Cook’s Journal, 1854). But if you look closely, its shoots are still vigorous, foliage is free of disease, and there is a crop of fruit for another batch of mulberry jam. When trees grow old, they can still thrust up arms of youthful vigor.
Perhaps resveratrol flowing in its veins helped to preserve the tree. But no matter its age, if shoots are still healthy there are germs of longevity in their tips. They contain meristems like stem cells derived from animal embryos which can recreate a whole organism (think of clones or Adam’s rib). Most gardeners take the regenerative power for granted, but when I take cuttings to make a new rose I think of embryology. In 2008, on the four hundredth anniversary of Milton’s mulberry tree, shoots taken from the old stock were planted in Wales for the Hay Literary Festival.
Who dares to guess how long they will thrive there? The indefinite longevity of plants is a marvel denied to mortals. Perhaps Charles Darwin pondered the difference after seeing the mulberry tree when he was admitted to the college in 1827.
Five years after going down from college in 1632, Milton was contemplating the premature demise of Edward King in a shipwreck. He composed an elegy for his college chum, which ascends from pastoral life to a resurrected plain that an immortal mulberry tree has no need of.