This unfurled ‘page’ of lettering on a Beech tree literally means a book…

The German word for “letter” – Buchstabe – literally means “Beech stick” and refers to a time when an old form of lettering called runes was carved or punched into staves or sticks (Staben) made of beech wood (Buche) [Fagus sylvatica]. Our word stab comes from this pointed stick, too. 

Runes were used for divination and when making important decisions. The German / Old Teutonic was itself derived from Old Norsk bók meaning beech.  So, the beech tree is the origin of the English word book.  In Old English it was bóc

Buchstaben, then, literally means beech graffiti. And, lots of letters put together … a book / Buch / and back to beech. Love it!

The smooth bark is an ideal surface for carving.  As the tree grows in height and girth, the letters rise up the trunk and expand, giving clues to the tree’s age.

Extracts from the Oxford English dictionary (2nd edition 1989)


A com. Teut. Word
OE. bóc 
These forms indicate an OTeut. *bôk
The original meaning was evidently ‘writing-tablet, leaf, or sheet’
OE. bóc charter: in pl. tablets, written sheets, hence ‘book,’ a sense subseq. extended to the singular.

Gothic does not show *bôks, but an apparently derivative form bôka strong fem., in sense of ‘letter’ of the alphabet, pl. bôkôs litteræ, γράµµατα, writing, document, book.

The OED adds a note to dampen this lovely eponymous circularity of meaning:

[Generally thought to be etymologically connected with the name of the beech-tree, OE. bócbéce, ON. bók:—(see beech), the suggestion being that inscriptions were first made on beechen tablets, or cut in the bark of beech trees; but there are great difficulties in reconciling the early forms of the two words, seeing that bôk-s ‘writing-tablet’ is the most primitive of all.]

Never let truth get in the way of a good story, though.

Morus Londinium mulberry blogs by Peter Coles and friends


New series of mulberry tree walks

Leaning black mulberries in Fountain Court planted for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897

From the end of June through July I’ll be leading weekly walks, using London’s mulberry trees as waypoints to discover the capital’s hidden past. From Roman bathhouses and Thameside wharves to King James I’s silk project; from Chelsea’s fascinating veteran mulberry heritage to the City’s Monasteries and Inns of Temple …

More information and bookings:


And then there were none

Mulanje Cedar. Photo: Amanita Phalloides (Creative Commons). 

Some 40 or more years ago, when I first read Venture to the Interior by Laurens van der Post, I was struck by his vivid description of a dense forest of unique cedar trees, high on the Mulanje Plateau in southern Nyasaland, (now Malawi). Having spent much of my childhood on the edge of a soft and bright ancient beech wood in the Chilterns, the dark, ominous forest that van der Post describes evoked a very different experience of trees and woodland to my own. I’ve wanted to write about this ever since. But I hadn’t bargained for what I would discover (Spoiler alert: scroll down to the end of this blog article).

Venture to the Interior is a narrative account of Van der Post’s mission to Nyasaland (now Malawi) in 1949 to explore two relatively unknown parts of the country for the British government.

The book is, despite its intrinsic colonial tone, beautifully written. Van der Post was something of an evangelist for the theories of Carl Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst, so it is little surprise that Venture to the Interior treats Africa, the continent in which he was born, as a metaphor for the unconscious – and more specifically his own unconscious – which he contrasts with ‘rational’ Europe, his adopted home as an adult. There is, he says in the Preface to the book, “…an unresolved conflict between two fundamental elements in my make-up; conscious and unconscious, male and female, masculine and feminine; the constitution of my father and the presence of my mother in me. On one side, under the heading “AFRICA”, I would group unconscious, female, feminine, mother; and under “EUROPE”: conscious, male masculine, father.” (pp.12-13). Comparisons with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, written 60 years earlier, are obvious.

Here are extracts from the pages dealing with van der Post’s first encounter with the cedars of Mulanje, in his ascent with Peter Quillan, the Chief Forestry Officer of the province and their meeting with forester, “Dicky” Vance, whom they arrange to meet near his forestry hut:

It seemed that Mlanje, from the forestry point of view, was unique. There was no other place like it in Africa or the world. It was indeed a world of its own, a very ancient, lost world of trees that grew nowhere else. These trees, he [Quillan] said had been given the name of cedars, Mlanje cedars, because they looked to the uninitiated eyes like cedar. But they were not cedars at all. They were a conifer of a unique and very ancient sort, had their roots in the most antique of antique Africa botanical worlds.[1] I would see them for myself soon, in fact I would smell them even before I saw them. Their scent, night and day, filled the air on the mountain; filled it with a heavy, all-pervasive but delicious scent of a lost world; of a time and a place that existed nowhere else.

Their colour, like their scent, was unique. It was green, of course, but like no other green; there was a sheen of the olive green of cypress, and the substance of the green of the ilexes of Greece and the Caucasus; the texture of the conifers of Columbia and the vital electric sparkle of African juniper. In the bark, in the veins and arteries of those trees, the sap, a thick, yellow, resinous sap of a specific gravity and density most unusual in conifers, ran strongly. If you laid your ear to a trunk, it was almost as if you could hear this vital, this dark, secret traffic drumming upwards, skywards, from the deep, ancient soil, the original earth perhaps of Africa, to the outermost, the smallest spike of a leaf, sparkling in the sun a hundred, even a hundred and twenty feet above. So full were the trees of this vital sap that it preserved them even in death; no insect, no worm, no ant would touch even the driest morsel of .it. It was the only ant-resisting wood in the whole of Africa.

But when one threw it on the fire as I would soon see, it was so full of life, of stored-up energy from another world, that it literally exploded into flame. It consumed itself joyfully and gaily, crackling explosively in flame with none of that lugubrious reluctance to burn of some other woods that Quillan could mention. And fire, unfortunately had nearly been the cedars’ undoing. Some centuries ago when human beings first appeared in the plains round Mlanje, great fires swept up the mountain and burnt havoc through the responsive cedar woods. They, the Forestry Services, had come just in time to save the remnants of it.

There was still a good deal of forest left–enough for them to exploit in order to get the money to rejuvinate [sic] the species, but what I would see was a world of cedars in retreat, a world of unique and irreplaceable living trees, fighting a desperate rearguard action against fire and rapacious human beings, standing-to gallantly, night and day, without cease in the deepest, dampest and remotest recesses of the mountain. Surely I could understand why they were so jealous, so suspicious on the trees’ behalf! [..]

[Quillan] explained that they were so short of good wood in Nyasaland that they were cutting cedar at Chambe, sawing it up by hand and carrying it down the mountain, each length separately on the head of black porters. 

“It is hell for them” said Quillan “but they don’t mind and we have got to do it. We make it up to them by feeding them and paying them as well as we can, but we don t like it.[…]

I became aware of a strange, thick, resinous, spiced, oily scent, and Quillan said: “Do you mind getting off the track, please?” 

There seemed to be a deep, sheer drop on our right, so, using saplings, we pulled ourselves up on to a steep slope to the left of the track. I heard the pad-pad of heavily burdened feet coming out of the mist above, then someone breathing and puffing with every cell of his lungs, followed by a smell of human sweat mingling with the scent of resin and a native balancing a heavy, thirty-foot beam of cedar on his head, came out of the mist towards us.

I thought it wrong, somehow, that laden and breathing as he was, he should feel compelled to raise his hand and say, “Morning, Bwana !” Besides, he was just on the edge of a precipice.

“He gets ninepence a day and some food for doing that,” said Quillan. “I’d be damned if I’d do it.”

From now on we passed dozens of carriers coming down the mountain at regular intervals. Quillan always took the same punctilious care to make way for them. We began to talk less. The track became steeper and we had to use our hands as well as our feet in places. One bit of it passed a tremendous drop of smooth sheet rock, cyanite I think Quillan called it. The rock had a seventy-degree slope above us, but below it dropped sheer into the mist. We clambered across it from one precarious foothold of moss and aloe root to another.[…]

At twelve exactly, three hours after our start, as we were going up a particularly steep part of the mountain using our hands as well as our feet in places, I heard dogs barking in the mist above us.

“Those are Vance’s dogs. I expect he is coming to meet you,” Quillan said, paused, and sniffing at the mist, added: “Do you notice something?”

It was that heavy scent. Every time the timber carriers went by I had smelt it, a scent that I had not come across anywhere else. But now it was much more confident and pronounced. I nodded. 

“Cedars,” he said, breathing the scent in with deep satisfaction. “Cedars, as I told you. We are near the top now.” […] 

The peaks were still covered but the valley, the so-called Chambe plateau up which we had walked, became more and more open to view. I could see what Arbuthnot meant by saying it was like a glen in Scotland. It was utterly unlike the Africa we had left down below.

It was covered in lovely long rye, oat and barley grasses, gold-green and purple in their early winter colours. Through the valley on all sides, from behind folds, hills, and many slow, gradual rises in its contours, flowed crystal-clear streams, presumably the rainbow trout streams of which I had heard so much.

At first I thought there were palm trees growing on the banks of the streams, but I soon realized that they were huge tree ferns, the last remnants of the great cedar forests that once had covered this valley too. The scent of the cedars themselves now was most marked. Soon I began to see them, as Quillan had so vividly described them to me: at first, in small clusters driven back into odd, remote nooks of the valley, but then, as we went deeper into the valley, there appeared in the central gash of it a real, dank, brooding, resentful forest of them. It was rather an awe-inspiring sight. They looked, in an odd way, prehistoric; lovely, but long before human time. I would not have been surprised to see a pterodactyl fly out of them.  All round the edges their branches were festooned and heavily hung with garlands and veils of lichen and moss.

“Aren’t they wonderful!” Vance said to me in his clear, firm voice, proudly as if he had invented them. […]

[Vance’s forestry hut] stood on a high grass-gold mound in the central gash of the valley. There was a wide clear stream and a darker fringe of immense cedars round the bottom of the mound. As we made our way slowly towards it the afternoon light turned it purple and it looked rather like some kind of unadorned velvet set in a crown of be-metalled cedars. On either side of the stream there were long slopes of golden grass, speeding away and up to where three miles farther on perpendiculars of solid grey cliffs, smooth and shining like the bark of a blue-gum tree., rose two to three thousand feet above the floor of the valley. All around the cliff-tops the mist continued to sag heavily.

The hut itself was built of crossed-cedar beams, lath and plaster. It had a roof of cedar shingles, a little cedar veranda at the back, cedar floor-boards and, I was to find, a few pieces of crude cedar furniture as well. It burned cedar logs whose flame and. smoke added to the cold air their own variants of the generic all-pervasive scent. The smoke rose straight up for some hundreds of feet, wavered, and then curved slowly back on its course, until it looked like a feathery question mark stuck into the roof of the hut. […] 

“I hope you won’t mind, but look, you are not going to take all this away from us are you?” [said Vance].

“How could I? And why should I?” I said.

“I don’t know,” he said miserably. “I don’t know, but the feeling seems to be that you might want to use Mlanje for something other than forestry?”

I reassured him as best I could. I said I had not seen Mlanje, had no preconceived notions about it, but judging only from what I had seen that day, it seemed obvious that whatever happened very special provisions would have to be made for the cedars and their rejuvenation. But it seemed to be a tremendous mountain and there might be room for other things besides cedars.

“It is big enough,” he said sadly. “It’s big enough! That’s the trouble. Butyou know, anything else, particularly sheep or cows, wold spoil it. They wouldn’t belong, It should all be recovered with cedars from end to end, as it once was.” […]

“I am sure it will be all right,” [I said]. “We’ll see that your cedars are all right anyway.”

Extracts from Laurens van der Post, Venture to the Interior. Chatto and Windus, London, 1952. (Queen’s Classics edition 1962). 116-127. 

It seemed that Mlanje, from the forestry point o view, was unique. There was no other place like it in Africa or the world. It was indeed a world of its own, a very ancient, lost world of trees that grew nowhere else. These trees, he [Quillan] said had been given the name of cedars, Mlanje cedars, because they looked to the uninitiated eyes like cedar. But they were not cedars at all. They were a conifer of a unique and very ancient sort, had their roots in the most antique of antique Africa botanical worlds.[1 I would see them for myself soon, in fact I would smell them even before I saw them. Their scent, night and day, filled the air on the mountain; filled it with a heavy, all-pervasive but delicious scent of a lost world; of a time and a place that existed

[1] The Mulanje cedar is Widdringtonia whytei, an evergreen conifer, native to Malawi (former Nyasaland) and found only on the Mulanje Massif altitudes of 1,830-2,550 metres. It has been renamed the “Mulanje cypress” to better reflect the taxonomic group it belongs to. It is a fast-growing, pioneer species and will usually grow back quickly after fire. However, its durability and resistance to insects and fungi made it in great demand for most of the 20th century for construction, driving it to the point of extinction.  

For an update and photos, see also this Guardian article by Morgan Trimble (Tue 22 Sep 2015 12.08 BST)

and this piece by Wiliam Atkinson from Sun 15 Jan 2012 00.04 GMT

Canonbury’s heritage mulberry

By Peter Coles

Canonbury, that sedate corner of urban tranquillity just two miles due north of St Paul’s cathedral, is home to more curiosities than many parts of London. Some are well known, like the delightful, exposed stretch of the New River, a project started in 1602 and completed in 1613, to bring drinking water to central London from the River Lea near Ware in Hertfordshire (see also our article linked to Sir Hugh Myddelton, who oversaw the project).

And then there is Canonbury Tower – a very unusual Tudor brick tower built between 1509 and 1532 by Prior William Bolton of St Bartholomew’s Priory in Smithfield (on the site of St Bartholomew-the-Great). The Tower was part of his redesign of the extensive 13th century Canonbury Manor, which belonged to the canons of St Batholomew’s. This once covered all of today’s Canonbury Place, including a large park and gardens, complete with an octagonal house – another Canonbury curiosity, which can still be see today in Alwyne Villas.

canonbury house and tower

But few are aware that, hidden in a private garden behind the tower and the adjacent Canonbury House, is a sprawling, gnarled, black mulberry tree that might turn out to be one of the oldest in London.

The sprawling black mulberry may be over 400 years old

The gnarled and collapsed old trunk is hollow and split

A 16th century skyscraper

Canonbury Tower is fascinating in its own right. When Henry VIII seized Canonbury Manor during his Dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, it eventually passed down to his First Minister, Thomas Cromwell, who oversaw the Dissolution. Cromwell lived here for a year before his fall from grace and execution in 1540. In 1570 the Mansion passed to Sir John Spencer, a favourite of Elizabeth I, who became Lord Mayor in 1590. In the early 1600s, Sir Francis Bacon lived here and, later, Oliver Goldsmith.

The Tower has some extraordinary carved fireplaces, Tudor cubbyholes and a dark, oak-panelled room with a few remnants of the paraphernalia of freemasonry. Much of the Masonic symbolism added to the wood carvings and decorations was commissioned by Spencer, who was a prominent Rosicrucian. On Spencer’s death in 1610, the mansion passed down to his son-in-law, William Compton, Earl of Northampton, who had eloped with Spencer’s daughter, Eliza, who was hiding in a bread basket lowered from an upstairs window. The Manor has passed down in the Spencer-Compton family ever since and is still owned by the Marquess of Northampton.

Spencer was a friend of Francis Bacon, the philosopher and parliamentarian under both Elizabeth I and James I, who came to live at Canonbury Manor from 1616-25. Like Spencer, Bacon was a Rosicrucian, and the first Grand Master of modern English Freemasonry. The Tower became the home of the Masonic Research Centre from 1998-2012.

The oldest mulberry in London?

Did any of these illustrious early residents plant the mulberry tree? If so, it could be anywhere between 400 and 500 years old, placing it in the ranks of the oldest surviving mulberries anywhere in England – and certainly the oldest within walking distance of the City. There are very old mulberries in the ancient orchard at Syon House, which are also thought to be 16th or at least 17th century. Old mulberries were noted there in 1548 by William Turner, the botanist and apothecary to Lord Somerset who inherited the Bridgettine monastery after the Dissolution and built a house there. But, although well inside the M25,  Syon House is in Brentford, 13 miles away from the City. Meanwhile, another very old mulberry at Charlton House, which is thought to date from 1611, is 7 miles from the City.

Could the Canonbury mulberry really be Tudor and as old, or older, than the Syon House trees? It is impossible to tell for sure, without invasive analysis. But it does share many of the hallmarks of a very old tree: It has collapsed and much of the trunk is lying horizontally. Branches trailing along the ground have started to grow upwards like new trunks, some distance from the original bole. The core of this bole is hollow and split, with the familiar burrs of a black mulberry, making it very difficult to measure its girth to assess its age.

There is a black mulberry at Hatfield House that was possibly planted by John Tradescant when he was Head Gardener from 1610-15, but may well pre-date him by fifty years, as it has also been attributed to Princess Elizabeth, when she lived there before becoming queen . The Hatfield mulberry, though has been pollarded and, while hollow, is squat and not leaning or lying down.  Meanwhile, Christ’s College, Cambridge has records of purchasing and planting black mulberry trees in 1608. One of these – the celebrated ‘Milton mulberry’ – survives on a mound in the Fellow’s Garden and shares several features with the Canonbury tree.

There is, then, every possibility that the Canonbury mulberry is very old – the walled garden where the tree stands features in old plans of the Manor. Prior Bolton seems to have been familiar with mulberries and may have planted one or more at St Bartholomew’s Priory, which he rebuilt. There are records of a very old mulberry tree still surviving in the 19th century, adjacent to St Bartholomew-the-Great (with remains of the Priory) and some evidence for a mulberry garden next to the Infirmary.  There is a fine mulberry tree there today, although not more than 100 years old, but it does symbolise the ancient connection.

Another possibility is that Francis Bacon planted the Canonbury mulberry. Bacon was a cousin of Robert Cecil, son of William Cecil, the powerful Lord Burghley in the reign of Elizabeth I.  Robert was responsible for rebuilding the Tudor Hatfield House and gardens in the Jacobean style. James I had persuaded Robert to accept the Old Palace and manor at Hatfield in exchange for the splendid Theobalds, which Robert had inherited from his father.  We know that around 1611 Robert sent his gardener, John Tradescant, abroad to bring back mulberry saplings. He apparently planted around 500 at Hatfield, as part of James’s sericulture project, though only one survives today – and that is a corner feature of the Tudor knot garden, not apparently a vestige of a plantation. Robert Cecil and Bacon were not exactly on friendly terms, but Tradescant may have had a mulberry going spare for Bacon to plant at Canonbury – if there wasn’t one there already….


Thanks to Nicola and Gavin Ralston for inviting me to look at the tree. Nicola is writing her own account of the tree for the Canonbury Society, due out in March-April 2018.


London College of Fashion mulberry

20180222-_DSF1381-Edit LOndoncollegefashionsmall

Morus nigra at London College of Fashion, now over 100 years old.

Last week I finally got to see the black mulberry I’d heard about from several people, located behind the London College of Fashion in Lime Grove, Shepherd’s Bush.  The College is opposite what was he BBC’s Lime Grove studios for years until they were demolished and replaced with housing.

Pablo, the Spanish gardener for LCF, took me into the courtyard at the back of the main building and proudly showed me the 12 metre high black mulberry, leaning at a slight angle. It produced masses of fruit every year.

From archive photos it looks as though it was planted in about 1904, as a sapling, — perhaps already 10 years old at the time.

London College of Fashion mulberry 1915

The mulberry in 1915, eleven years after the London School of Building opened in 1904.

Pablo told me he had succeeded in growing a mulberry sapling from seed – the only one that germinated from the 25 he planted.  After showing it to me, and admitting that he didn’t have the space to grow it himself…. he gave it to me!  So I am now the proud owner of a Morus nigra, about 3 years old! Thanks Pablo!


Pablo with the 3 year-old mulberry tree he has grown from seed from the tree at London College of Fashion.


London is home to rare Black Poplars

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Native Black Poplar on the banks of the River Lea at Hackney Marshes

There are only about 7000 native Black Poplars (Poplus nigra betulifolia) left in Britain, most of them south of The Wash (the bay where Norfolk meets Lincolnshire on the east coast of England). And only 600 of these are female. These females produce a cottony fluff when the seeds are ejected to be carried by the wind. As this can be a nuisance, local authorities and forestries have planted male trees. The result is that the native population has declined, rarely reproducing through seed and mostly by suckering and sending up new trunks if a tree falls over. Added to this, the draining of wetlands for development has meant that any fertile seed is unlikely to fall on the silty damp soil it needs to grow into a tree. The last blow to the native wild Black Poplar is that it easily hybridises with non-native species, like the Lombardy Poplar or the Cottonwood of North America.

On Thursday evening this week I led a small group to find the Black Poplars along a stretch of the River Lea beside Hackney Marshes – a large, flat grass space that is laid out for football pitches, used for training. There are as many as 20 mature Black Poplars here, some along Homerton Road as street trees, the others on the river bank in a beautiful, natural setting. Walking by the river, with swans and cygnets, anglers and limpid fresh water, it is hard to remember that you are less than ten minutes’ walk from the hipster bars of Hackney Wick and what used to be (before the 2012 Olympics) an industrial area of North London. The only “downer” on our walk was when we approached a line of Traveller caravans in order to get to the footpath by the river and co-leader Andrew was bitten on the leg by a nasty little dog.

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Walking back across Hackney Marshes football practice pitches in the evening light

London mulberry project

In May this year the Conservation Foundation launched a new project called Morus Londinium that I helped to put together. From now until the end of next year I will be writing regular blogs for their website.  The idea is to document and preserve London’s mulberry tree heritage and to research the stories behind some of the older ones, which are sometimes survivors of a past that has disappeared under urban development.

My latest post is on the mulberries of Cadogan Place Gardens, on the edge of Chelsea.