WASHINGTON – The enormous magnolia tree stood watch by the South Portico of the White House for nearly two centuries. Its dark green, glossy leaves shaded politicians and heads of state. Its ivory flowers bloomed through times of peace and war. It is the oldest tree on the White House grounds, a witness to Easter egg rolls and state ceremonies, a resignation, a plane crash, all the tumult and triumph of 39 presidencies.
But the iconic magnolia is now too old and badly damaged to remain in place, the White House announced Tuesday. At the recommendation of specialists from the National Arboretum, first lady Melania Trump called for a large portion of the tree to be removed this week.
The decision, first reported by CNN, comes after decades of attempts to hold the aged tree up with a steel pole and cables. Arboretum experts said that rigging is now compromised and that the wood of the magnolia’s trunk is too delicate for further interventions. Any other tree in that condition would have been cut down years ago.
But this is not any other tree. According to White House lore, the stately evergreen was brought to Washington as a seedling by Andrew Jackson. The magnolia was a favorite tree of his wife, Rachel, who had died just days after he was elected. Jackson blamed the vicious campaign – during which his political opponents questioned the legitimacy of his marriage – for his wife’s untimely death.
The new planting, which came from the couple’s Tennessee farm, the Hermitage, would serve as a living monument to her in the place she despised; before her death, Rachel had reportedly said, “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of God than live in that palace in Washington.”
Long after Jackson left office, his magnolia remained. Other trees were planted to supplement it, and the tree became a fixture in White House events. Herbert Hoover reportedly took breakfast and held Cabinet meetings at a table beneath its sprawling branches. Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke with Winston Churchill in its shade. Richard Nixon strode past it as he left the White House for the last time after his resignation. In 1994, a Maryland man piloting a stolen plane clipped the tree before suffering a deadly crash against the White House wall. And for decades, the magnolia was featured on the back of the $20 bill.
“No tree on the White House grounds can reveal so many secrets of romance and history,” longtime White House butler Alonzo Fields once told the Associated Press.
In 2006, when the National Park Service initiated a “Witness Tree Protection Program” to study historically and biologically important trees in the Washington area, the Jackson magnolia was at the top of the program’s list. By then, the tree was tall enough to reach the White House’s second-story windows and had already eclipsed the minimum life expectancy for its species – about 150 years.
According to a report from the NPS program, workers attempted to repair a gash in the tree in the 1940s. But within a few decades, much of the interior portion of the tree had decayed, leaving behind a “rind” of brittle wood. Those surviving portions were held in place by a 30-foot pole and guy-wires. “It is doubtful that without this external support the specimen would long survive,” the report said.
Ultimately, those measures could not allay safety concerns about the tree, said White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham. Visitors and members of the press are frequently standing right in front of the magnolia when the president departs on Marine One; the high winds from the helicopter could make a limb collapse more likely.
Keith Pitchford, a Washington, D.C.-based certified arborist, is familiar with the Jackson magnolia but has not professionally assessed it. He wondered whether the removal may be premature: “If you can lower the tree and make it a bit more squat, it really prolongs the life of these trees we thought were hazardous,” he said.
According to Grisham, the first lady requested that wood from the magnolia be preserved and seedlings be made available for a possible replanting in the same area.
Already, progeny of the historic tree are thriving in other spots nationwide. It’s said that Lyndon B. Johnson had a seedling from the magnolia planted outside a friend’s home in Texas so that when Lady Bird stayed there she could look out the window and imagine the president at work in the White House. Ronald Reagan gifted a cutting to chief of staff Howard Baker Jr. for his retirement in 1988. Then-first lady Michelle Obama donated a seedling to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “people’s garden” in 2009.
Jackson’s original magnolia at the Hermitage was destroyed along with hundreds of other trees during a devastating tornado in the late 1990s. It was ultimately replaced by new trees donated from the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tennessee. According to Michael Grantham, gardens manager for the Hermitage, staff always said that those trees were clones of the White House magnolia – but without an identifying label, no one knew for sure. So Grantham sent tissue samples to a plant genetics lab at Cornell University.
“It was not an exact match,” he said. “What we got was probably seedlings from underneath the tree.”
Someday, Grantham would like to bring a cutting, or an exact clone, of the White House magnolia back to the Hermitage. “I know there are some out there,” he said. In those trees, Jackson’s two-century-old tribute lives on.
The Washington Post’s Adrian Higgins contributed to this report.