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.
Specialists at the United States National Arboretum [wrote] … 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.”
Another excerpt on the history of this tree:
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. …
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.
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.
A view of the Jackson Magnolia on the $20 bills of my youth. The magnolia can be seen on the reverse bill below. These bills were phased out in the late 1990s.
Despite this end of the Jackson Magnolia, a new generation will follow:
…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.
Trees like this can be symbols and focal points for a nation or a community’s history, memory, and identity. They remind those who admire them across time and over so many human generations how short the sweep of seemingly-long time can be, how close we really are to those who came before, and how near we are to passing from the scene. In this way, they remind us to be stewards of the best of what we’ve received, and to strive to pass along that best for the better of those yet to be.