Hundreds of trees came crashing down amid the fury of last week’s windstorm, and with the elements seemingly heedless of whose trees they were, it seemed sad but unsurprising that one of them stood on the grounds of Mount Vernon and dated to the days of George Washington.
It may even have been transplanted into the earth on the grounds of the first President’s home in Fairfax County, Va., more than 200 years ago by Washington himself, according to Robert Shenk, an official at the estate .
An entry made into Washington’s diary on July 13, 1785 said the hemlock was near the garden gates on that day, Shenk said.
Whether Washington prepared the soil and placed the tree with his own hands is not known, said Shenk, who is Mount Vernon’s senior vice president for visitor engagement.
However, he added, “he certainly thought it worthy of one of his typically terse diary entries. “
Moreover, Shenk said, a man with Washington’s demonstrated interest in trees and plants “likely directed its planting” as well as its prominent siting along the estate’s North Serpentine.
Not native to Virginia, he said, the hemlock, which possibly arrived as a sapling or young tree, was “something to be prized.”
The exact age of the hemlock can not be fixed with certainty, as neither history nor the dating of venerable trees appears to be perfectly exact.
On the trunk of the tree, Shenk said, the date was listed as “circa 1791.” That dating, he said, was based “on the dendrochronology,” the science of dating environmental events based on study of growth rings in tree trunks.
The six-year discrepancy between the date on the trunk and the date of the diary entry?
“Likely the result of small errors in the science,” said Shenk. .
It is hard not to mourn the loss of a tree with roots so deep in history and with so close a connection to the man regarded as foremost among the country’s Founding Fathers.
But the power of nature is not easily denied. The winds in the Washington region on Friday gusted up to 60 mph and higher.
And ultimately its fate was no different from what befell many trees that were little known beyond the streets where they stood. Hundreds of trees, many of them capable of being described as essentially anonymous, fell around the area.
And the first President’s hemlock had become vulnerable.
“The tree clearly had some rot deep within it ,” Shenk said, “so it’s not likely that it would have survived much longer. “
The tree at Mount Vernon was not the only casualty among members of the plant kingdom with ties to the early American republic.
A tree that toppled in the Dupont Circle area during the storm was believed to be 200 years old, and was said to have stood on a farm once owned by President Andrew Jackson.