No Lie: Perfectly Preserved 100-Year-Old Cherries Discovered in Mount Vernon, George Washington

MOUNTAIN VERNON, Virginia. (AP) — George Washington never cut down the cherry tree, despite the famous story of the oppositebut he packed a few bottles of fruit at his home in Mount Vernon.

Dozens of bottles of cherries and berries — impossibly preserved in storage pits discovered in the cellar of his mansion on the banks of the Potomac River — were discovered during archaeological digs related to a restoration project.

Jason Boroughs, Mount Vernon’s senior archaeologist, said the discovery of so many perfectly preserved foods from more than 250 years ago is essentially unprecedented.

“To find what is essentially fresh fruit, 250 years later, is pretty spectacular,” Boroughs said in an interview. “All the stars have to somehow align in the right way for this to happen.”

Pieces of whole fruit, recognizable as cherries, were found in some bottles. Other bottles contained what appeared to be currants or gooseberries, although tests are underway to confirm this.

Mount Vernon partners with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which conducts DNA testing on the fruit. They are also examining more than 50 cherry pits collected from the bottles to see if any of them can be planted.

“It’s a little far out,” Benjamin Gutierrez, a USDA plant geneticist, said of the chances of using a cherry pit to grow a tree. Seeds store best when dry, and most of the samples found at Mount Vernon were waterlogged. Some pits initially tested were not viable as seeds.

Nonetheless, he said the bottles were a remarkable find. In addition to DNA testing, he said chemical tests could show whether particular spices were used to preserve the fruit.

Mount Vernon records show that George and Martha Washington were fond of cherries, at least when mixed with brandy. Martha Washington’s recipe for a “bouncy cherry” cocktail survives, and Washington wrote that he took a gourd of bouncy cherries with him on a trip through the Alleghenies in 1784.

These cherries, however, were most likely bottled to be eaten simply as cherries, Boroughs said.

The quality of the conservation reflects high quality work. Slaves ran the plantation’s kitchen. The kitchen was overseen by an enslaved woman named Doll, who arrived in Mount Vernon in 1758 with Martha Washington, according to the estate.

“The slaves who tended the trees, picked the fruit, worked in the kitchen, would probably be the ones who supervised and carried out this process,” Boroughs said. “It’s a highly skilled process. Otherwise, they simply would not have survived this way. »

The bottles were only found because Mount Vernon was making a $40 million mansion revitalization project which they hope to be completed by the nation’s 250th anniversary in 2026.

“When we do archaeology, it’s destructive,” Boroughs said. “So unless we have a reason to disrupt those resources, we tend not to do it.”

“In this case, due to the structural repairs needed to the mansion, the ground was going to be disturbed. So we looked there first,” he continued. “We didn’t expect to find all of this.”

They know the bottles predate 1775, as that was when an expansion of the mansion led to the area being covered with a brick floor.

Mount Vernon announced in April, at the start of its archaeological work, that it had discovered two bottles. As excavations continued, their numbers grew to 35 in six separate storage pits. Six of the bottles were broken and the other 29 were intact. Twelve contained cherries, 16 contained the other berries believed to be currants and gooseberries, and a larger bottle contained both cherries and other berries.

Boroughs believes he has discovered all the cherries and berries that survived.

“We look forward to getting a lot of information from these bottles,” he said.


This story has been updated to correct that 29 bottles were found intact, not 19.

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