George Washington’s birthday is a proper time to think about cherry trees. According to legend, the young president-to-be cut down a cherry tree, then admitted the act to his father because he couldn’t tell a lie. Rather than question the historical truth of the story, though, let’s question just what kind of cherry tree was involved.
Sweet cherry trees were among those ordered from Europe by the Massachusetts colony in 1629. Plantings spread, and trees became so abundant that in 1749, naturalist Peter Kalm wrote that “all travellers are allowed to pluck ripe fruit in any garden which they pass by, provided they do not break any branches.” Perhaps Washington planted a few sweet cherry trees at his farmstead along the shores of the Rappahannock River. The felled tree also might have been a tart cherry. Although native to Europe’s Caucasus Mountains, colonists in Massachusetts planted them. The tree might have made its way in the nursery trade south to Virginia a hundred years later.
One thing is certain: the famous cherry tree could not have been one of the ornamental types commonly planted these days. These nonfruiting cherries originated in the Orient and were introduced into America beginning in the 19th century. The most famous is the Yoshino cherry, which fringes the tidal basin in Washington, D.C. Others include the Higan cherry, the Sargent cherry, and, the most widely planted today, the Japanese flowering cherry.
Besides exotic introductions, the eastern U.S. seaboard abounded with wild cherries in Washington’s time, as it does today. Our native pin cherry is not much more than a bush, so it hardly would have a trunk worthy of legend.
Colonists did eat the fruit of our native black cherry or, more often, concoct it with rum from the West Indies to make a cherry liqueur. But the best part of the black cherry is its wood, a hardwood which with some sanding and then oil or varnish takes on a finish that is soft brown with a hint of red.
Now, just suppose George Washington had chopped down one of the black cherry trees. Rather than performing an act of mischief, our future president might have had some loftier purpose in mind.
(The story, incidentally, was recorded by Mason Locke Weems in his early 19th century book about the life of George Washington.)
Lee Reich is a columnist for The Associated Press