George Washington is known for honesty and cherry trees, country life, and political leadership, but we also know that history is often embellished. Did you know that the fable regarding Washington and the cherry tree isn’t exactly true? While Mount Vernon was definitely home to some delicious cherry trees, the story about the child George and his truthfulness to his father was actually made up after Washington’s death by Mason Locke Weems.
Learn the true story and find out what did George Washington grow in his greenhouse at Mount Vernon.
Tart Cherries Grew up Washington’s Garden Wall
While the story about the childhood cherry tree may not be true, the adult Washington did indeed grow tart cherry trees on the property. These trees, known for enjoying a Virginian climate, were said to be planted in the fruit garden and the nursery as well as his gardener recording “Pruning & Fastening Cherry trees on the Wall” of the Upper Garden on January 6, 1798. Washington delighted in these cherry trees for making meals, preserves, and cider and they exist as one of the oldest entries in his personal gardening record, when he records receiving the trees from his neighbor, Colonel George Mason, on March 24, 1762.
Washington’s Fruit Garden and Nursery Began as a Vineyard
Perhaps the reason for Washington’s enthusiasm for his fruit garden is because the area where these trees grew was actually a failed vineyard. It appears that wine was not to be in the Mount Vernon future — at least not from homegrown grapes and along with tart cherries, the area was converted to grow Newtown Pippin, Maryland Red Streak and Gloucester White Apples; Amber and Green Gage plums; Chantilly and Two Pound Pears; Heath Peaches; and Mayduke and Carnation Cherries.
A veritable fruit salad of delights, Mount Vernon produced many delicious fruits for its residents to dine on. A visitor to the estate in 1782 was said to have noted, “There is an immense, extremely well-cultivated garden behind the right-wing. The choicest fruits in the country are to be found there.”
Understanding the care and enthusiasm Washington had for gardening and different varieties of plants, it’s no surprise that the former leader also had a greenhouse to cultivate more exotic and temperamental plants. But what did George Washington grow in his greenhouse?
George Washington’s Greenhouse
If we want to know what did George Washington grow in his greenhouse at Mount Vernon, we should first explore what did Margaret Carroll grow in her renowned greenhouse at Mount Clare? For it was Carroll that inspired the building and design of Washington’s own greenhouse down to the gift of 20 of her lemon and orange trees, including a set of custom grafts called Shaddocks that bore both fruits at once. Along with the trees, she shipped an additional 5 boxes of planting starts which were reported to include both aloe and geranium, sent in October 1789.
Washington empowered Otho H Williams to help procure these desired plants from Carroll and he reportedly delivered “Mrs Carroll sent me five boxes, and twenty small pots of trees, and young plants; among which were two Shaddocks—One Lemon, and One Orange, of from three to five feet in length; Nine small orange trees; Nine Lemon; One fine balm scented Shrub; Two Potts of Alloes, and some tufts of knotted Marjoram.”
Washington’s greenhouse was an innovative venue for horticulture of its time, which also included Sago palms and a unique steam and heating system to help propagate the tropical plants inside. While this greenhouse was one of the largest features on the Mount Vernon estate, and a true marvel for visitors — but there is a sad and less proud side of the story as well. While the plants protected from cold weather are worth admiration, the fact that this building also housed enslaved workers tarnish the facility in an equal manner.
The original greenhouse burnt down in 1835. The structure on the site today was rebuilt in 1951 and based on drawings and descriptions of the original structure. In addition to these larger and more famous areas, the entire grounds of Mount Vernon have inspired landscapers and historians alike. While there is both myth and romanticizing in these stories told, there is a depth of history and innovative supporting true and tested stories as well.