It wasn’t long after the oak tree arrived on the South Lawn of the White House, a gift from a World War I battlefield in France, that it suddenly disappeared.
The oak, which was supposed to be a symbol of a long-standing French-American alliance, had been placed in quarantine, because it was a living thing imported to the United States, the French ambassador said. It would be replanted, he said.
But that didn’t happen. Now, more than a year later, it appears we know why.
The European sessile oak had died, a diplomatic official said.
The circumstances of its death are a bit of a mystery. According to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak about the situation, experts who were consulted during the process said differences in soil composition often make it difficult for a foreign tree to take root.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment. The news first emerged in French media reports.
The European sessile oak was about 5 to 10 years old, according to the White House, when it was delivered in April 2018, a gift from President Emmanuel Macron on his first official state visit of the Trump administration.
The tree stood less than 5 feet tall.
But what it lacked in size and longevity (oaks in its family have been known to live for hundreds of years), it made up in the symbolism it was said to possess.
It was transplanted from Belleau Wood, a battlefield 60 miles east of Paris where thousands of Marines died in a battle against the Germans who were pushing toward the French capital.
When the oak was planted on the South Lawn, Macron, who had already enjoyed a rapport with President Donald Trump, said he was pleased the tree “can now take root here at the White House in front of us as a symbol of the sacrifice and the common battles that France and the United States have led together,” according to a transcript of his remarks.
Trump and Macron stood for photos, shovels in hand, as the tree was planted. During the visit, the presidents hugged. There was a mutual kiss on the cheek.
The next day, Vice President Mike Pence said, “In the words of the Psalmist, may this relationship grow ‘like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, and produces its fruit in season whose leaf also does not wither.’ ”
The relationship between Trump and Macron soured in the coming months over differences in approaches to security and trade, particularly Trump’s decision to withdraw from the multinational nuclear deal with Iran and to reimpose sanctions on the country.
At a meeting in November in France for the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, the relationship appeared strained and forced — a marked contrast to Macron’s visit that April.
News of the oak’s death came as Trump again visited France, this time on the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of World War II. The men tried to put their differences behind them.
Doug Tallamy, a professor at the University of Delaware who teaches courses on ecology, said it was not a surprise that the oak died. While oaks in the same family as the European oak exist in the United States, including the Washington area, he said a transplant of an oak already 5 to 10 years old necessarily involves damage to the roots.
“Everybody wants instant gratification, so they want big trees,” he said. “You get a long-lasting wonderful tree if you plant it small and let the roots develop.”