Cherries are beginning to appear at the grocery store which means they will soon materialize at farmer’s markets and orchards. There are few things better than a fresh, ripe cherries in summer. Randolph’s instructions reveal the exacting methods and attention to detail required to preserve fruits during her day. She notes, “the process is a tedious one,” but necessary if one wished to serve fruits outside their season. As discussed with the recipe for peach marmalade, during the early modern period preserves, especially those produced with sugar, were luxury items. Rather than preserving a bounty of cherries for later consumption, Randolph’s instructions for preserved cherries results in whole fruits that could be used to decorate a cake or pudding. She begins the recipe with the observation, “the most beautiful cherries to preserve, are the carnation and common light red, with short stems.” In her Directions for Making Preserves, she further specifies, “fruit for preserving should be in full perfection, but not too ripe.” Clearly, appearance is paramount for this recipe.
Randolph spent the last nine years of her life in Washington, D.C. The new capital, formed in 1790 and significantly damaged during the War of 1812, bore little resemblance to today’s thriving seat of government while Randolph resided in the city. Likewise, the cherry tree, had not yet become a symbol of Washington, D.C. although surely cherry trees existed within the District in Randolph’s day. The cherry tree’s association with Washington, D.C. began in the early twentieth century when the Japanese government gifted thousands of flowering cherry trees to the city. The first successfully transplanted cherry trees arrived in 1912 as a gift of friendship to the People of the United States from the People of Japan. The trees transplanted in Washington D.C. are ornamental and do not bear fruit, however, they provide the opportunity to explore the history of strong-minded and innovative women in American history, much like Randolph herself.
The idea to plant cherry trees on land reclaimed from the Potomac River originated with an extraordinary woman, Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore (1856-1828). Born in Clinton, Iowa, Scidmore was an author, geographer, photographer, and the first woman to sit on the board of trustees of the National Geographic Society. Eliza accompanied her brother George Hawthorne Scidmore, a career diplomat who served in the Far East from 1884-1922, and fell in love with the history, culture, and natural beauty of Japan, especially the flowering ornamental cherry trees. Anyone who has attended the Cherry Blossom Festival in D.C. will agree with Eliza that “It is “the most ideally, wonderfully beautiful tree that nature has to show.” Upon her return in 1885, Eliza championed Japanese cherry trees in the capital, however, city planners ignored her suggestion. Eliza continued to advocate for planting cherry trees in the capital without success until she found a supported in incoming First Lady Helen Taft in 1909. With the First Lady’s enthusiastic support and gifts of trees from the Japanese government, plans create groves of cherry trees in West Potomac Park and the Tidal Basin began to move forward.
On November 10, 1938, a National Park Service press conference announcing plans for the memorial insinuated the destruction of “approximately 600 trees of various kinds” to make way for the building. Among these were the famous cherry trees and local women quickly organized to save them. The leader of the Cherry Tree Rebellion, Eleanor “Cissy” Patterson, owner of two Washington newspapers, the Times and the Herald, and longtime critic of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, published front-page articles decrying the destruction of the Japanese cherry trees and criticizing President Roosevelt.
With construction scheduled to begin after Thanksgiving, Patterson had little time to save the trees. On Thursday, November 17, 1938, Patterson rallied D.C. society women opposed to the destruction of the cherry trees at her Dupont Circle mansion. From Patterson’s home, 80 women marched to the White House to deliver a petition to save the trees. The next day, a group of 150 women disrupted efforts to transplant the trees by wrestling shovels away from Civilian Conservation Corps workers and symbolically chaining themselves (and a U.S. Park Police sergeant) to the trees. The women’s efforts temporarily suspended work, however, President Roosevelt, determined to move forward with the memorial, dismissed the women’s actions and opposition faded away. The short-lived Cherry Tree Rebellion failed to halt construction but their efforts were not in vain. In addition to transplanting many trees in the construction zone, more trees were planted along the south side of the Tidal Basin. The resulting springtime view of the Jefferson Memorial framed by flowering cherry trees is one of the most iconic in the Capitol.
Randolph’s preserved cherries is a straightforward recipe calling for sugar, water, and cherries. Preserved whole in a sweet syrup, the cherries are excellent for decorating baked goods and the syrup, reduced slightly to thicken, is a wonderful addition to ice cream.
Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife (1838), p. 159.
Adapted by RA Snell using “Cherries in Syrup” from Complete Book of Home Preserving (2006, 2012), p. 148.
- ½ lb fresh cherries
- ½ lb sugar
- 5 cups water
- 1-pint glass canning jar with lid and ring, sterilized
- Boiling water canner
- Jar lifter
1. Thoroughly wash your fruit and set aside. Leave the stems and pits intact.
2. Combine the sugar and water in a large stainless steel pot. Heat over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved.
3. Carefully add the cherries and simmer gently in the syrup for 4-5 minutes.
4. Carefully transfer the cherries to the sterilized jar. Add hot syrup to cover the cherries leaving ½ inch headspace.
5. To can: Wipe rims, remove air bubbles, and adjust headspace as necessary. Center lid on jar and screw on ring until secure but not tight. Place jar in canner, be sure the jar is completely covered with water, and bring to a boil. Process for 25 minutes. Remove canner lid and allow the jar to sit for five minutes. Carefully remove the jars, cool, and store.
Yield: 1 pint cherries in syrup
To serve: Use the cherries as decorations for baked goods such as cakes. They could also be a sweet addition to a cheese board.
This recipe has been scaled down to make it more approachable. If you are a seasoned home canner and wish to increase the recipe, it can be easily doubled, tripled, etc.
There’s no need to purchase special equipment to create this recipe. If you don’t wish to can the cherries, you may simply allow them to cool in the syrup and store them in the refrigerator. I would expect them to last a couple weeks. If you do wish to can the cherries, you must and I cannot stress this enough purchase jars specifically designed for canning. I’m partial to Ball jars but there are a number of reputable brands available. You do not, however, need to purchase a boiling water canner. A pot big enough to fit your jar(s) with at least an inch of water above the lid and a tight fitting lid may easily be used instead. You will need to find a rack or a substitute to lift the jars off the bottom of the pot to allow the water to fully circulate during the water bath. A cake cooling rack works well for this task.
“The Cherry Tree Rebellion,” National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/articles/the-cherry-tree-rebellion.htm.
“History of the Cherry Trees,” National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/subjects/cherryblossom/history-of-the-cherry-trees.htm.
Michael E. Reune, “Cherry blossoms’ champion, Eliza Scidmore, led a life of adventure,” The Washington Post (March 13, 2012), https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/cherry-blossoms-champion-eliza-scidmore-led-a-life-of-adventure/2012/02/22/gIQAAzHEAS_story.html.
For more on Eliza Scidmore, visit: https://dianaparsell.com/book-eliza-scidmore-biography/