[Page no. 474]
[Melbourne Age Nov. 10, 1894]
SERICULTURE IN VICTORIA
In the manufacture of silk the colony of Victoria cannot lay claim to precocity. Although advantageously situated, we have so far failed to produce the valued commodity in a businesslike manner. And yet the work is not only simple, but there is a mint of money in it. We buy annually from other people over £300,000 worth of silk; and our consumption is but as a drop from a river, which instead of drawing from we should help to swell. The value of the silk produced throughout the world is estimated at nearly £50,000,000. Asia, the home of the industry, produces more than one-half the total quantity, Europe about a third,and the balance is contributed by Africa, America and the South Sea Islands. The demand for silk seems always equal to the production, and there is no reason why Australia should not share largely in the industry.
Some 20 years ago a well-meant, pretentious, but badly designed attempt was made to plant it in this colony. A sericulture company, with which Mrs. Bladen Neill was prominently connected, was formed to carry on silk husbandry. Mrs. Neill paid a special visit to Europe, and returned in January, 1873, with "grain,"which was said to be the produce of the only sound race of silkworms she was able to find on the continent. In 1874 a second supply of "grain" was obtained from Switzerland. These eggs of the Bombyx mori, which are smaller than grains of mustard seed, were distributed amongst persons at Wodonga, Chiltern, Benalla, Wangaratta, Corowa, Queeenscliff and Melbourne. The results were disappointing. There were successful hatchings, but there was an insufficiency of food. We had got the worms, but not the mulberry trees, so failure was inevitable. Still, what small results were obtained were sufficient to prove that Victoria is an admirable country for silk rearing. Our cocoons, though small in number, received honorable mention at the Vienna Exhibition, the judges stating that they were equal to the best Italian silk. But the Victorian Ladies' Sericulture Company Limited had to succumb, some say on account of costliness, others on account of having made the initial mistake of trying to produce silk without mulberry trees, and nearly 20 years have since been lost. Happily it is never too late to mend, and another effort is now being made to establish silk husbandry in Victoria. This time a society, and not a company, has been formed, and mulberry trees are being planted broadcast. Thousands of mulberry cutting have been distributed from the Government nurseries, and Mr. Martin, the Secretary for Agriculture, is not only arranging for the dissemmation of information, but has accepted the presidency of the new sericultural society. In time like the present, every move for the development of our natural resources deserves commendation and encouragement.
It is scarcely necessary in these days of enlightenment to say that silk is a kind of thread exuded by the silkworm, and that great care is needed in rearing the worms as a condition precedent to obtaining silk of good quality and in large quantity. Silk occurs in various forms. Cocoons, knibs or husks are the balls as formed by the worm. Raw silk is the thread composed of several fibres united by their natural gum as wound off the cocoons into skeins. Waste silk is that part which is first would off cocoons, and cocoons which are damaged. In 1889 England imported £899,474 worth of cocoons, £2,192,548 worth of raw silk, £510,000 worth of waste silk and £11,800,00 worth of manufactured silk goods.
China is the oldest silk rearing country. It is written that the Chinese practised the art 2800 years before the commencement of the Christian era. Thence the art travelled to India, Persia and Egypt, and in modern times to Greece, Italy, France and England. According to a bulletin published by the Italian Agricultural department, the output of cocoons in Italy was as follows :---1889, 75,531,040 lb.; average price, 17 3-16d.; total value, £5,393,140. 1890, 89,703,702 lb.; average price, 18 5/8d.; total value £6,898,500. These quantities were produced in 5195 communes by 559,155 breeders, and gave an average return of about £11 to each breeder for seven or eight weeks' work. The average export of Italy in raw silk now amounts to the large sum of £10,000,000 annually, and gives work to many thousands of work people. The value of the industry is also greatly appreciated in France, where in 1890 it was subsidised to the extent of £140,000, and in 1892 an act was passed providing for a bonus of 5d. per kilo of cocoons, available for 16 years. In the district of Rajahahye (British India) silk production employs 12,000 people, who send £400,000 worth to market annually. California is also becoming an important silk country, as a reward of having planted 8,000,000 mulberry trees since 1870.
With the many examples, ancient and modern, of silk husbandry before us; with our own mistakes of 20 years ago still fresh in memory, we ought now to make a successful forward movement. the growth of mulberry leaves, the favorite food of the silkworm, must be recognised as the first essential. As has been urged by Baron von Mueller, the white mulberry tree should be planted copiously everywhere for hedges or copses. It is of extremely easy growth from cuttings, and can also be readily raised from well-matured seeds. It can be grown in cold climates, where even the olive will no longer thrive. It has passed through years of severe drought in Central Australia. Still, the locality chosen for mulberry trees as food for silkworms is a very important questions. Much depends on the quality of the soil. There should certainly be not woo much moisture. What is required is a sandy, permeable and deep soil with little moisture. This will yield good wholesome food in abundance. The mulberry dreads stagnant water, os low lying or marshy land must be avoided. moist lands in valleys, or near rivers induce a rapid growth of the trees, but in those situations the leaves contain too much watery matter, and tough eaten voraciously are extremely injurious to the health of the worm. Trees in dry soil give fewer leaves, but any deficiency in their quantity is amply compensated for by the greater nutriment which they afford, and, as a necessary consequence, by the superior quality of the silk produced. It is, however, as peculiar and not displeasing fact to the prospective silk farmer that poor land is far the more preferable for the mulberry tree, fro the richer the land the more water and less nutritive substance do the leaves contain. Therefore, to those cultivators who happen to possess both rich and poor lands, the wisest course would be to relegate the latter to silk cultivation.
Just as the squatter has to see that his run is well grassed and watered before venturing to stock it, so the sericulturist requires his plantation to be matured before he begins silk raising. The plantation must precede the silkworm, for to feed on young leaves worms that have passed, say, the first moulting stage would generally be attended with the gravest results. Many persons jump to the conclusion that because a mulberry leaf is a mulberry leaf it must necessarily be a proper food, and that worms will thrive equally well upon every species. But it is not so, for if the leaf is deficient in the proper nourishing constituents, the silk crop as well as the worm, will be seriously affected by it, as the quality of the silk depends almost entirely on the kind of mulberry used as food. The mulberry, and especially those varieties used for silkworms, is hardy, of quick growth, and possesses the additional advantage of coming into leaf about a fortnight before the "grain," or eggs are hatched. The greatest possible care is necessary in forming a plantation so that only the proper variety of mulberry is planted - one which possesses leaves which contain all the necessary qualities for producing good, strong and lustrous silk in quantities. There are many varieties of the white or non-edible mulberry, but for all practical purposes three, viz., the Cape, Rose Leaf and Lhou will be found sufficient.
The Cape variety, though imported into this colony from the Cape of Good Hope, where it has been extensively cultivated, came originally from Japan. The leaf is small, pointed and deeply serrated, of a tender green color and very abundant. Its value is also considerably enhanced by its budding into leaf very early. It is also considered by many experts to furnish the most suitable food for the young worms while agriculturists value it, not only as being the best tree on which to graft other varieties, but for its wonderful rapidity of growth. the rose leaf is full, firm, rich and glossy, greatly resembling, as may be inferred from its name, the leaves of the rose tree, but much larger, and it s a fact well established that worms fed on this leaf produce the strongest of all silks. The Lhou mulberry is a native of Northern China ; it has a remarkably large leaf, some of those grown in the Murray district measuring nearly 13 inches long, and proportionately broad. The leaf is, to the botanic eye, a very beautiful one, and to the silk cultivator it is perhaps the most valuable of all. It is exceedingly rich in color, not quite so thick as some other varieties, but full of seric matter, and, in America and France, it is extensively used by those engaged in the industry to impart that brightness, lustre and elasticity so essential to silk of superior quality. This tree unfortunately cannot be purchased in the colony, for the only importation of it into Australia was made by the late Mrs. Bladen Neill and the Victorian Sericulture Company, and whether there are any specimens of it still in existence is not known. It is just possible that a few Lhou trees might still be found at Cropper's Lagoon, near Corowa, New South Wales, where a plantation was established some years ago. The Morus Multicallus, probably the most popular tree with amateurs, possesses a large, soft, cellular leaf, but, although it is undoubtedly the favorite leaf of the worm, it is not at any time to be recommended as a food, as its juicy succulent nature often has a disastrous and fatal effect. Agaiu, worms fed on these leaves produce little silk, save floss or waste, the cocoon itself, in which the valuable portion of the silk is alone contained, being invariably only a thin, flimsy web, through which the pupa is distinctly visible.
The most easy and expeditious method of rearing mulberry trees is from cuttings, and although so great a number cannot be raised in this manner as from seed, yet, on the other hand, it has a great advantage in point of strength and quick growth. Cuttings will put forth shoots 4 and 5 feet long in one season, and will at the same time be providing themselves with roots. The most suitable period for planting cuttings from June to the latter and of August. The Government nurseries at Mount Macedon have a large number of Cape and Rose Leaf mulberry trees, and the curators are only too willing to distribute cuttings to applicants desirous of embarking in this ancient industry, In France and Italy the mulberry plantations generally consist of large standard trees. This is not only an inconvenient method, but a very costly one, for the leaves cannot be reached without the aid of ladders, and climbing among the branches often causes the tree to sustain great injury. The Chinese adopt a much more sensible plan in order that their leaves may be gathered in the easiest manner and without the slightest risk to the tree. The trees are cut in a hollow form, without any interesting branches in the middle, so that a person going around the tree may gather all the outside leaves, and afterwards stand within and clear the inside foliage. There the trees are not allowed to grow to any great height, each tree forming a sort of around hedge, its topmost branches being easily within reach without climbing. The more attention bestowed upon these trees by dressing and prun-[ing] the overgrown branches, the greater will be the supply of leaves. In France and Italy a profitable industry is carried on by many people, wh never think of rearing silkworms, but who grow the mulberry tree for the sole purpose of selling the leaves to the silk grower; and the silk grower, like the Australian squatter and farmer, limits his business entirely to the production of the raw material, his cocoons, like the wool from the station, being sold in the open market to the manufacturer. In other parts of the Continent trees are hired for the season, the price demanded being according to age, size and variety.
There is no reason whatever why we in Australia should not grow the mulberry and the silkworm, and so create, in a few years, an export in raw silk in the shape of cocoons equal in value to our butter and wool industries.