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Portions Of Ailing White House Magnolia Removed Over Safety Concerns

Dec 28, 2017
Originally published on December 28, 2017 7:25 pm

A tree known as the Jackson Magnolia has stood on the grounds of the White House for nearly 200 years and stood witness to 39 presidencies.

But Wednesday, it got a significant cutback.

After reviewing reports of the magnolia's poor health, first lady Melania Trump approved the removal of a large portion of it. A White House spokeswoman told CNN that Trump made the decision out of concern for the safety of guests and journalists who often stand under the tree — especially when the president's helicopter lifts off.

Why all the hubbub about a tree trimming?

"It is the most obviously historically significant tree on the White House grounds," says Jonathan Pliska, author of A Garden for the President: A History of the White House Grounds.

That's because of the tree's history as a story of love and horticulture, a tale that might be more myth than fact. As Pliska tells NPR, the story goes like this:

After Andrew Jackson was elected president, but before he actually moved into the White House, his beloved wife, Rachel, died suddenly. The 1828 election had been very contentious and she was accused of being adulterous. Jackson believed that the slander against his wife had literally killed her. So when he came to the White House as a widower, he brought with him seeds and possibly a cutting from her favorite trees at their estate in Tennessee, the Hermitage. Jackson had it planted outside the White House in her honor as a lasting testament to their continuing love, even after death.

"We can't find any strong historical documentation to prove it," Pliska says, but "it's come down through the ages and is really one of the great stories about the White House grounds."

And, he adds, it's just a very good-looking tree: "It reaches almost all the way to the top of the White House now and in the spring it has the most beautiful large, fragrant flowers."

So the Jackson Magnolia is famous and lovely. But it's also troubled.

White House documents reviewed by CNN explain why the tree needs help:

"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 tree's rot issues stretch as far back as the 1940s, says Pliska, and by the '70s the rot was so widespread that one of the main limbs was actually taken off and the cap was filled with concrete as a preventive measure.

"The crux of the problem with this particular tree is that instead of having one main trunk it had three smaller branches," he says. "I said one failed pretty dramatically, but all of them were basically rotted out."

The first lady has asked for the wood to be preserved and seedlings kept for future plantings, the White House told the AP.

For his part, Pliska isn't sad about the trimming of a legend.

"It's still a hardy survivor," he says. And even when the tree "does finally die — and it will because the tree is a living thing — the National Park Service and their partners have been propagating seedlings and seeds ... to replace the original with its own descendant when it finally does go. So even after the tree dies, it'll very much still be a fixture on the grounds."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

On Monday, news started spreading that there would be another departure at the White House. Specialists were called in. A report was drafted and reviewed. And the authorization was made for the axe to fall on a tree. The Jackson Magnolia has stood on the grounds of the White House for almost 200 years and 39 presidencies. Thankfully for the tree perhaps Monday's news, first reported by CNN, was overstated. The tree was not entirely removed. The Jackson Magnolia did get some major trimming.

Landscape historian Jonathan Pliska is author of "A Garden For The President: A History Of The White House Grounds." Welcome.

JONATHAN PLISKA: Well, thank you so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: Start by just describing what this tree looks like.

PLISKA: Well, it's one of the grandest old trees on the grounds. It is very large. It reaches almost all the way to the top of the White House now. And in the spring, it has the most beautiful, big, large, fragrant flowers. And it's one of the reasons, I think, it's been such a prominent fixture on the grounds for so long. It's just a very good-looking tree.

SHAPIRO: It also has more than one trunk. It's kind of falling over. It's held together by cables. For all of its majesty, it's kind of decrepit.

PLISKA: That's a good point. And what's interesting is from the front of the tree you'd never know anything was wrong. When you turn around and go behind it, it is literally a kind of a shell of its former self. It's being supported by a system of guy-wires and a large pole running up about 30 feet.

SHAPIRO: How much had to be cut back this week?

PLISKA: Reports seem to be differing a bit on that. And what I do know is that they removed very correctly as little as possible. And it appears that part of one of the major limbs, the part that was the most structurally unsound and the most dangerous to public safety, was what was removed. But a large part of the tree is still there to the best of my knowledge.

SHAPIRO: If this tree has been in decline for decades, why go to such efforts to save it?

PLISKA: Partially because of the wonderful story associated with it, of course, with being reportedly planted by President Andrew Jackson after he came to live in the White House in 1829. The story, which is possibly not completely true - it might be more myth and legend than historical fact - goes that after he was elected president but before he actually moved into the White House, his beloved wife, Rachel, died suddenly. And the election of 1828 had been very contentious. And she was accused of being an adulteress. And Jackson believed that the slander against his wife had literally killed her.

So when he came to the White House now as a widower, he brought with him seeds and possibly a cutting from her favorite trees at their estate in Tennessee, the Hermitage, and had it planted outside the White House in her honor as a lasting testament to their continuing love even after death. So whether or not that story's actually true, it's still just a wonderful story. And it's come down through the ages and is really one of the great stories about the White House grounds.

SHAPIRO: And I understand that seedlings from this tree have been spread far and wide.

PLISKA: Yeah, that is true. Most recently, one went to Cuba as the gift of President Obama to the Cuban people. There's a tree actually planted on the grounds of American University as well, and that was a gift to the campus arboretum from Michelle Obama.

SHAPIRO: As somebody who has written an entire book about the White House grounds, is this a sad moment for you?

PLISKA: Well, no, it's not because among other things the tree is still standing. And even when the tree does pass away, when it does finally die - and it will because a tree is a living thing - the National Park Service and their partners have been propagating seedlings and direct growings (ph) from seeds of this tree in preparation to replace the original with its own descendant when it finally does go. So even after the tree dies, it'll very much still be a fixture on the grounds.

SHAPIRO: Historian Jonathan Pliska is the author of "A Garden For The President: A History Of The White House Grounds." Thanks for joining us.

PLISKA: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.