In early spring, thousands of families in rural China are trekking into fields to strip the last mulberry leaves from the trees. Mulberry leaves are the only leaves that silkworms will eat. The leaves must be fresh as silkworms will not drink water and the leaves supply all the moisture they need. By the end of April, silkworm trays fill homes. The silkworms are at their largest and their appetite is truly immense. They are in their last week, and at this age, they can eat their body weight in leaves in a day.
Typically, the women care for the silkworms in the home. They must keep the trays clean, be vigilant for signs of sickness, and make sure that there are always fresh leaves to eat. Young leaves and buds are sorted for the very young. As the silkworms grow older (and bigger!), they must be moved to new trays to avoid crowding. This is all after making breakfast for the family, sending the children off to school, and working in the garden or fields.
While the silkworms and the people who raise them deserve much of the glory, I think the unsung heroes of silk-making may be the mulberry trees themselves. Once a cutting is planted and established, they require no further watering. They can be pruned low, much like grape vines for easy picking. And once cut, the trees will send out a flush of new shoots time and again. Both the flowers and leaves are eaten. They are people-friendly too. No thorns and their branches snap off for easy carrying. Since silkworms are very chemically-sensitive, mulberry trees are never sprayed, but are generally not bothered by pests and diseases.
In some farms, the mulberry trees are planted along the edge of fish ponds and are enriched with the pond dredgings. When grown on hillsides, they prevent soil erosion. And they’re tough and undemanding. Where tea plants cannot be cultivated because the soils are too poor, mulberry trees can often be grown.
I don’t really know how many mulberry leaves a silkworm eats in its life, but it’s a lot. And those leaves had to be grown by a tree. So when a child plays with a playsilk, he is playing with rays of golden sunshine, warm rain, and a mountain of mulberry leaves!