Thomas Jefferson considered the cucumber tree as an ornamental species in his only published book, Notes on the State of Virginia (1781).1 He requested plants in a 1786 letter to John Bartram, Jr., the Philadelphia botanist and nurseryman.2 In 1810, Jefferson noted that he had planted "Cucumber tree seeds" in his nursery at Monticello.3
This North American tree was first discovered in 1736 by Virginia's early botanist, John Clayton.4 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. This bitter is very 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."5
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 and then covered with purplish-red fruits in fall.
Primary Source References
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 accidentally not long since. the tree I have never seen."6
1807 November 24. (Jefferson to Edmund Bacon). "P.S. I have forgot to mention that in the box of Paccans there are 3. papers of seeds, to wit, Cucumber tree, Mountain Laurel, & Pitch pine. the 2 former Wormley must plant in the Nursery."7