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Exclusive: Iconic White House tree to be cut down

The south facade of the White House will undergo a dramatic change this week: the historic Jackson Magnolia, a tree t...

Posted: Dec 27, 2017 9:19 AM
Updated: Dec 27, 2017 9:19 AM

The south facade of the White House will undergo a dramatic change this week: the historic Jackson Magnolia, a tree that has been in place since the 1800s, is scheduled to be cut down and removed.

The enormous magnolia, one of three on the west side of the White House and the oldest on the White House grounds, extends from the ground floor, up past the front of the windows of the State Dining Room on the first floor and beyond the second-level executive residence. The tree has had a long and storied life, yet has now been deemed too damaged and decayed to remain in place.

The Jackson Magnolia has had a long and storied life

The tree has been in the background for numerous historic events

Specialists at the United States National Arboretum were brought in by the White House to assess the Magnolia grandiflora, as it is specifically termed. According to documents obtained exclusively by CNN, the tree must be removed, and quickly, despite efforts to preserve it over several decades. The documents read in part:

"The overall architecture and structure of the tree is greatly compromised and the tree is completely dependent on the artificial support. Without the extensive cabling system, the tree would have fallen years ago. Presently, and very concerning, the cabling system is failing on the east trunk, as a cable has pulled through the very thin layer of wood that remains. It is difficult to predict when and how many more will fail."

The decision to remove the tree was ultimately made by first lady Melania Trump after she assessed all of the professional information and accompanying historical documents.

"Mrs. Trump personally reviewed the reports from the United States National Arboretum and spoke at length with her staff about exploring every option before making the decision to remove a portion of the Magnolia tree," Trump's communications director, Stephanie Grisham, told CNN. "After reviewing the reports, she trusted that every effort had been made to preserve the historic tree and was concerned about the safety of visitors and members of the press who are often standing right in front of the tree during Marine One lifts."

Grisham added Trump has requested that the wood from the tree be preserved.

The tree is scheduled to be taken down later this week.

History of the Jackson Magnolia

After a brutal presidential campaign in 1828, Andrew Jackson's wife, Rachel, died just days after his election; according to historians, Jackson believed the particularly divisive campaign contributed to his wife's untimely demise. When he took up residence in the White House as a widower following his inauguration, it is believed Jackson insisted on planting a sprout from Rachel's favorite magnolia tree from the couple's farm, Hermitage, in Tennessee.

That tree eventually grew into the sprawling magnolia the American public has come to know and recognize to this day. (A companion magnolia was planted on the opposite side of the South Portico years later for symmetry.) The official Jackson Magnolia has been in the background for numerous historic events, from state arrival ceremonies and Easter Egg Rolls, to thousands of photo ops, social and athletic activities, and countless Marine One departures and arrivals. Ironically, the tree stands directly behind where the press is currently penned during these occasions, now perilously close to the weakened giant.

Some highlights from the tree's lifetime:

  • From 1928 to 1998, the tree was featured prominently on the back of the $20 bill.
  • In 1994, a single-engine plane crashed onto the South Lawn of the White House, sending debris from the wreckage into the Jackson Magnolia, cutting off one of its larger branches.
  • Laura Bush commissioned a set of White House china inspired by the tree, called "The Magnolia Residence China," painted with magnolia leaves and blossoms.
  • Michelle Obama in 2009 took a seedling from the magnolia to the United States Department of Agriculture so that it could grow at the USDA's community garden.
  • In 2016, Obama also clipped a seedling as a gift to the people of Cuba; it was planted during the Obamas' visit there. Various other dignitaries and first ladies have gifted or replanted seedlings from the tree throughout history.

How did the tree die?

According to documentation seen by CNN, the bulk of the trouble with the Jackson Magnolia began as far back as five decades ago, when three "leaders," or trunks, emerged from its base, creating a mass of tangled and shared bark.

Around 1970, it's believed one of the leaders broke off from the other two and was removed, and its cavity was exposed, leaving the entire tree susceptible to decay. As such, the cavity was filled in with cement, a procedure not advisable today, but which at the time was deemed the proper course of action. The concrete did irretrievable damage and in 1981, it was removed and replaced with a large pole and cable system, which remain today, holding up the remaining leaders.

In person, while the tree and its trunks appear quite normal from the front side, from the back, the massive hulk of the tree is virtually hollow, with wood chipping away, in places crumbling to the touch.

The Arboretum experts agree the rigging in place is now itself greatly compromised. According to their report, "further cabling and support of the east leader is not an option due to the fragile, almost non-existent lower trunk. There is no longer a sound foundation, and the upper portion lacks sound wood for cabling. This half of the tree is considered a hazard. The west leader, on the other hand, could possibly be saved for a time, but will eventually succumb to the same fate. In addition, the high winds resulting from frequent helicopter landings complicates the future of the limb. It may fail in an unpredictable way."

The shiny green leaves themselves are thinning near the top of the canopy, a sign of lack of life, and what remains of the branches are simply too weak to hold more cables. In short, says the report presented to the first lady, "if this was any ordinary tree, it would have been removed long ago. We understand this is a historic tree, and all measures have been used to save it to this point in time. While we cannot comment on the need to preserve the tree as long as it stands, we believe eventually, the tree will fail."

The circle of life

However disappointing the removal of the Jackson Magnolia, the silver lining of its demise is that White House groundskeepers were prepared. For several months, at an undisclosed greenhouse-like location nearby, healthy offshoots of the tree have been growing, tended to with care and now somewhere around eight to 10 feet tall. CNN has learned the plan is that another Jackson Magnolia, born directly from the original, will soon be planted in its place, for history to live on.

This story has been updated.

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