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Preserving the Legacy of Cornelia Vanderbilt’s “Baby Tree”

Written By Amy Dangelico

Posted 02/17/23

Updated 12/11/23

In Our Gardens

In honor of the arrival of George and Edith Vanderbilt’s first and only child, a “baby tree” was planted just after her christening.

The Baby Tree: A Cucumbertree Magnolia

The Vanderbilts welcomed Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt in the late summer of 1900. In October of that year, a cucumbertree magnolia, known to botanists as Magnolia acuminata, was planted in Cornelia’s honor.

George Vanderbilt with newborn daughter Cornelia on the Loggia of Biltmore House, September 30, 1900
George Vanderbilt with newborn daughter Cornelia on the Loggia of Biltmore House, September 30, 1900

The cucumbertree is a deciduous magnolia with large oblong leaves. Unlike most other magnolias, its flowers are yellowish green and not very showy, causing them to often go unnoticed when they bloom in late May or early June. In its early stages, the green, fleshy fruit roughly resembles a small cucumber, hence the tree’s name.

Biltmore’s botanist, Chauncey Beadle, had collected the scarlet seeds of this indigenous tree found growing along the banks of the French Broad River near the estate. Beadle propagated the seeds in the Biltmore Nursery

In a letter within Biltmore’s archives, Beadle wrote:

“The seedlings resulting from this sowing were planted out in nursery rows, cultivated and pruned and eventually, placed along the roads and paths of the Estate with the exception of one tree, a particularly beautiful and thrifty individual, which remained on [sic] the nursery until chosen for the noteworthy occasion of which this writing bears record.”

The planting ceremony for Cornelia's Baby Tree, October 1900
The planting ceremony for Cornelia’s Baby Tree, October 1900

The Planting Ceremony

The planting of the cucumbertree magnolia, known fondly as the “baby tree” or “Cornelia’s tree,” was a small and intimate event. The Vanderbilt family, Beadle, Dr. Samuel Westray Battle, and a few estate workers were the only attendants.

A 1900 Asheville Daily Citizen article states:

“The spot selected is in a beautiful grassy dell near Biltmore House. The tree itself, now but a sapling of twelve feet in height, is expected to be 60 feet above the ground when little Cornelia reaches the age of 20 years. A few years after that event, it is expected that it will reach a height of 100 feet. It lives centuries, and is one of the prides of our beautiful southern forests.”

The baby tree grew to be massive, standing proudly in the Azalea Garden, just below the junction of the two main paths leading into the garden below the Conservatory and greenhouses.

The second generation cucumbertree magnolia, located in Biltmore's Azalea Garden
The second generation cucumbertree magnolia (center), located in Biltmore’s Azalea Garden

The Baby Tree’s Second Generation

After surviving more than a century, the cucumbertree succumbed to decay. Though a difficult decision, it was removed in September 2008. By that time, the baby tree had lost most of its bark and had just a few remaining branches.

Fortunately, the historical significance of the tree along with the gorgeous color and diversity of its wood grain made its timber ideal for repurposing. The usable wood was custom-sawn into thick slabs and dried to create “high boy” cocktail tables at Cedric’s® Tavern in Antler Hill Village.

Today, the second generation cucumbertree magnolia, which seeded naturally when the original baby tree was still living, can be found thriving in the same exact location in the Azalea Garden, preserving the legacy of this historic tree

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