In grade school, somebody at some point probably told a child the story of how six-year-old George Washington confessed to cutting down his father’s prized cherry tree with a hatchet. Why? Because he could not tell a lie. Ironically enough, historians now concede that biographer Parson Mason Weems probably made this anecdote up to romanticize our first president’s virtues (and sell those biographies). Now, this story is a permanent part of American mythology. But let’s get to the best part — that cherry tree!
If we don’t question the veracity of this story, what kind of cherry tree could it have been? What we do know is that it probably wasn’t a Japanese cherry blossom tree that we associate with springtime today. If this myth did have merit, Washington probably cut the tree down around 1738. It wasn’t until the 19th or 20th century that we saw the Japanese cherry tree in America.
In 1862, George Roger Hall brought some of the first Japanese cherry trees to the United States. We didn’t get an abundance of cherry trees until a few decades later, however. In 1909, the mayor of Tokyo donated 2,000 trees to Washington, D.C. However, much to the chagrin of gardeners of all time, the trees were infested with pests. Americans didn’t bust out neem oil and instead opted to burn the trees. In 1912, the Japanese sent another batch, this time of 6,000, to both D.C. and New York City as a symbol of friendship between the two countries.
A 2001 article from the LA Times gives some insight into what kind of tree Washington could’ve cut down. It’s possible that Augustine Washington, the president’s father, had a sweet cherry tree (Prunus avium) in his Virginia farmstead. This cherry tree had been in the United States as early as 1629, brought over from Europe. The plant could have also been a tart cherry tree (P. cerasus), which originates from the European Caucasus Mountains. Both kinds would have been found first in Massachusetts, but trade for 100 years in the colonies may explain how it found its way to Virginia.
The tree may be North American in origin as well. Washington could have cut down a black cherry tree (P. serotina), which is native to eastern and southern North America. If so, he could have had an entrepreneurial intention behind cutting the tree. Colonists ate the black cherry fruit and mixed it with rum to make a cherry liqueur. Most commonly, they cut down this tree to procure beautiful hardwood for furniture. With a little bit of sanding and varnish, and voila, you get a beautiful reddish brown finish. Perhaps this Founding Father possessed precocious business savvy in addition to honesty.