Cucumber Tree

Common Name: Cucumber Tree[1]

Scientific Name: Magnolia acuminata

Thomas Jefferson considered the tree as an ornamental species in his only published book, Notes on the State of Virginia (1781).[2] He requested plants in a letter dated January 17, 1786 to John Bartram, Jr., the Philadelphia botanist and nurseryman[3], and in 1810 Jefferson planted "Cucumber tree seeds" in his nursery at Monticello.[4] This North American tree was first discovered in 1736 by Virginia's early botanist, John Clayton.[5] In 1802 the French naturalist, François Michaux, observed the cucumber tree on the banks of the Juniata River in Pennsylvania and remarked: "The inhabitants-€¦pick the cones when green, to infuse in whiskey, which gives it a pleasant bitter-€¦[and which is] much esteemed-€¦as a preventive against intermittent fevers, but I have my doubts whether it would be so generally used if it had the same qualities when mixed with water."[6]

The Cucumber Tree is a hardy, deciduous, tree with greenish-yellow, bell-shaped flowers that appear with leaves in early spring, and has cucumber-like fruits which are green at first, then covered with purplish-red fruits in fall.

Primary Source References[7]

1805 October 26 (Jefferson to Madame de Tessé). "Magnolia acuminata. this plant is not of Virginia, except it's South Western angle, 250 miles from hence. I send you the only cone of it I ever saw, and which came to me accidentlly [sic] not long since. the tree I have never seen."[8]

1807 November 24. (Jefferson to Edmund Bacon). "P.S. I have forgotten to mention that in the box of Paccans there are 3. papers of seeds, to wit, Cucumber tree...Wormley must plant in the Nursery..."[9]

Footnotes

  1. This section is based on a Center for Historic Plants Information Sheet.
  2. Notes ed. Peden, 40.
  3. Betts, Garden Book, 109.
  4. Ibid, 422. Manuscript and transcription at the Massachusetts Historical Society.
  5. Denise Wiles Adams, Restoring American Gardens: An Encyclopedia of Heirloom Ornamental Plants, 1640-1940 (Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, Inc., 2004), 85.
  6. Michaux, Travels to the west of the Alleghany [sic] mountains, in the states of Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessea [sic] ... comprising the most interesting details on the present state of agriculture, and the natural produce of those countries ... under-taken, in the year 1802 2nd ed. (London, 1805), 38-39.
  7. Please note that this list should not be considered comprehensive.
  8. Betts, Garden Book, 306.
  9. Ibid, 355.

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