Imagine sitting at your desk one day and answering the ringing phone, only to hear the US State Department’s Office of Protocol on the other end. That is precisely what happened to Michael Perry, Export Specialist for the USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) when he was told President Obama was traveling to Israel in late March and wished to give a special gift to the Israeli people.
President Obama wanted to give a magnolia tree- a symbol of strength, perseverance and dignity. This Magnolia grandiflora, was not just any magnolia tree, however. This was a tree grown at the White House greenhouses, from seed of the famed Jackson magnolia, which stands at the South Portico of the White House. The Jackson magnolia was planted by President Andrew Jackson over 180 years ago as a tribute to his wife Rachel.
When gifting live plants to anyone in another country, it is important to ensure all the regulations of the receiving country are followed to protect the importing country’s plant health. Even the State Department has to follow these rules, so APHIS was called in to help.
APHIS International Services in Brussels covers Europe, Africa and the Middle East. When Mike Perry sought assistance for this historic visit, the APHIS Attaché in Brussels Marc Gilkey understood the symbolic and diplomatic significance of the gift. Coordinating with Israel's Plant Protection Service, while keeping in contact with the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, he was able to obtain and negotiate an Import Permit with conditions APHIS could meet. With this permit the green light was on for the White House Green House to send this historic gift.
Mike then carefully and thoroughly inspected the tree to make sure it was pest free, paying special attention to check for small insects and to examine the greenhouse records detailing its care. The tree was grown and shipped in a special soil-less medium as required by the Israeli import permit as soil is a common way plant pests can move. Perry issued a phytosanitary certificate through the Phytosanitary Certificate Issuance & Tracking (PCIT) system which tells the Israeli government that the tree has been found free of any pests and meets their import requirements. This is the same process any U.S. citizen would follow when trying to bring live plants to another country.
The tree was loaded onto Air Force One and traveled to Israel with the President. President Obama and President Shimon Peres together planted the seven-foot magnolia in the garden at President Peres’ residence in Jerusalem.
"…for me to be able to bring a tree from the United States that will find a home in that garden I think is symbolic of not only the friendship between our two nations, but between the two of us personally," said President Obama.
For information on importing or exporting plants and plant products please visit: www.aphis.usda.gov/import_export/plants/plant_exports/index.shtml