A massive 227-year-old Canadian hemlock that may have been planted by George Washington at his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia is no more. A brutal nor'easter that struck the region and downed thousands of trees also toppled the historic hemlock, as well as a Virginia cedar that had previously stood watch over Washington's tomb.
The hemlock, a gift from then New York Gov. George Clinton, arrived at the home of the first American president in 1791 inside one half of a whiskey barrel. The story goes that Washington planted the tree outside the gate of the estate's upper garden.
Posting on Twitter, Mark Shenk, senior vice president of visitor engagement for Mount Vernon, mourned the loss of an original planting on the estate.
As some on social media have noted, the tree's core appears to have suffered from rot and may have been the victim of an invasive a sap-sucking bug called the hemlock woolly adelgid. Since its accidental introduction to the U.S. in 1924 from Japan, the adelgid has spread rapidly, impacting an estimated 90 percent of eastern hemlock. Some of the specimens killed off were up to 500 years old.
In response to the outpouring over the loss of the tree, Mount Vernon officials said they may look to use its wood for repurposing as souvenirs.
"We will definitely be exploring our options. In the past, we have made wood products from trees that have fallen at Mount Vernon and made them available at the Shops at Mount Vernon," they wrote. "There is a lot involved in processing wood and determining what’s possible, so it may take a little time to figure out what we can do, so be sure to check back for here for updates!"
Many more trees to appreciate
Visitors to Mount Vernon today can still peer back in time at specimens chosen by Washington, who had an insatiable love for nature.
Starting in 1785, Washington wrote that he was setting out among his 7,600-acre estate to search for "the sort of Trees I shall want for my Walks, groves, and Wildernesses." Attractive varieties like locust, magnolia, red maple, sycamore, American holly, and spruce were soon planted throughout the landscape. It was a passion project that would continue until the president's death in 1799 at the age of 67.
According to Mount Vernon horticulturists, six trees (possibly, now five) planted under Washington's direction or that were in existence during his lifetime still exist within the historic footprint of Mount Vernon. Eight additional trees in the outlying areas of the estate date back to the 18th century, with one specimen, a chestnut oak, predating 1683.
You can see video of one of those plantings, a massive tulip poplar from 1785, in the video below.
As for the disease that may have contributed to the downfall of this historic specimen, researchers have been working feverishly to save what hemlock groves remain, including testing the release of a natural predator of the bugs found in the Pacific Northwest.
"I'm optimistic about the long-term health of hemlocks," Shenandoah National Park biologist Rolf Gubler told CNN in 2016. "Long-term, effective host-specific biocontrols are the best option for control."