I chose to write my President’s Day blog about our nation’s first president and the ubiquitous cherry tree myth. I studied U.S. history in college so I love a good presidential anecdote, but I also grew up with a cherry tree in my backyard, lending a certain significance to this particular story for me.
Written by Mason Weems in an 1806 biography of George Washington, the iconic story of young George chopping down his father’s cherry tree with a hatchet and admitting it later to his father (“I can’t tell a lie, pa”), served as a moral lesson for generations of American children on the virtue of honesty. Included in the famous McGuffey Reader (a widely used textbook in American schools throughout the 19th century), Americans celebrated Washington’s birthday on February 22nd by eating impressive amounts of cherries (dried or candied) and presenting their children with toy hatchets. Weems’ story lost its credibility by the early 20th century when historians realized there was nothing more than anecdotal evidence to support the story. Although most agree that the events in this story likely never happened, there is no way to know for sure.
As a child, Washington was not my favorite president. I loved the cherry tree in my backyard—it was a favorite refuge of mine where I spent many afternoons making up songs (mostly about my dog), and I did not think kindly of cherry tree killers, presidential or otherwise.
So I was pleased to learn that later in his life, Washington planted cherry trees at his Mount Vernon, Virginia estate along with apple, pear, peach, and apricot trees. Cherries had originally been introduced to America from Britain in the early 17th century, and the French and Spanish followed suit, importing different cultivars (like the Yellow Spanish and Early Richmond cultivars), to different regions of the colonies. By the mid 1800s, the cultivation of cherries had spread to Oregon, and the now popular Bing cherry is named after an orchard worker who discovered the cultivar on an Oregon farm in 1875.
To my surprise, when I was reading about Washington and cherries, I stumbled upon another less known presidential cherry-related conundrum: the mysterious death of Zachary Taylor in July of 1850! As the story goes, after taking a walk on the 4th of July, Taylor returned home, drank a glass of milk, and ate a huge bowl of cherries (no one knows why—it was a whole five months too late to be celebrating Washington’s birthday after all). Taylor became sick later that day and died five days later—the exact cause of death still unknown…but what a way to go!
Although I don’t know which cultivar my family’s sour cherry tree was (it produced very small fruit which was mostly eaten by birds), Bing cherry trees are grown in Seattle (City Fruit harvested 30 pounds last year!). However, Bing cherries are generally more suitable to the climate of eastern Washington–in Seattle, try growing the sweet cherry variety called Lapin, which tends to do better in western Washington than other varieties. For more resources on growing fruit trees and cherry trees in particular, check out the Growing Fruit and Recommended Reading pages under the Resources section of the City Fruit website!
Somewhere along the way as I wrote this blog about the cherry-related mysteries of American presidential history, I came across the 1931 song by Lew Brown and Ray Henderson sung by Rudy Vallee titled, “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries”, the lyrics of which seemed fitting:
Life is just a bowl of cherries,
Don’t take it serious,
It’s too mysterious…
Happy President’s Day!
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