White mulberry © Bob Gibbons/SPL

White mulberry

White mulberry in Chinese script

Morus alba

Mulberry trees are most famous for providing food for silkworms. Silkworms eat the leaves, then spin their cocoons from raw silk produced in their salivary glands.

The Chinese first discovered how to spin silk from the fibre of a silkworm’s cocoon more than 4,000 years ago. They began to cultivate the mulberry, and until about 200 BC silk production was a closely guarded secret. Silk quickly became a highly prized luxury fabric and was carried along the Silk Road – a network of trade routes between Asia, the Middle East, Europe and North Africa.

Mulberry leaves are used in Chinese medicine to cure colds, sore eyes and many other ailments. An infusion of dried fruits is said to be helpful for coughs.

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Silkworms feasting on mulberry leaves, Xiangyun district, Dali, YunnanThis delicate piece of Chinese silk was made in the AD 700s. It is embroidered with coloured silk threads, and threads wrapped in gold and silver.

Left: Silkworms feasting on mulberry leaves, Xiangyun district, Dali, Yunnan

Top left: © Bob Gibbons/SPL