If in this year of presidential politics you yearn for a different perspective on life in the White House, All the Presidents’ Gardens: Madison’s Cabbages to Kennedy’s Roses – How the White House Grounds Have Grown with America by landscape historian Marta McDowell provides the perfect antidote.
Revealing the story of how the Presidents and their families have shaped the eighteen-acre landscape which comprises the White House grounds, the book provides both a refreshing and revealing account of what is the nation’s “first garden” and begs the question, depending on who is elected in November, what’s next?
McDowell, a consummate storyteller, is without political bias relying instead on the politics of plants to provide “common ground” and serve as the focus of the book’s narrative. A backdrop for the nation’s history since 1800, the White House grounds are both a public space for pageantry and protest and a private space for refuge and reflection. Each presidential family has left its imprint and each has a story to tell.
Beginning with the founding of the capital by the somewhat “plant-crazy” George Washington, who sited the executive mansion on a rise for a good view, McDowell traces the history of the White House grounds within the context of the American horticultural movement. Its first plant list, an order for specimen trees including species native to America to line a formal entrance approach to the executive mansion, was placed by James Madison in 1809.
The cultivation and ceremonial use of trees plays a central role throughout, including the history of Washington, DC’s iconic cherry trees. While John Quincy Adams answered “the great ends of his existence” by growing chestnuts and elms and establishing the nation’s first forestry project, Eliza Scidmore, described as an “unpaid but determined garden lobbyist,” vigorously pursued her vision for the planting of cherry trees along the tidal basin.
And speaking of trees, in the chapter “All the Presidents’ Plants”, McDowell includes a list of trees, shrubs and vines grown on the White House grounds based upon inventories conducted in 1809, 1900 and 2008. The plant list includes the botanical name, cultivar, whether the plant is native to the lower 48 states and information about the time frame in which the plant grew.
Additional sections provide background information about the White House gardeners (The Men Who Planted for Presidents), recommended reading, sources and citations. Historic documents, maps and photographs generously illustrate the text, which deftly balances its breadth of scholarship with the freshness of McDowell’s style and depth of enthusiasm for the subject at hand.
In its final chapter, “Is Green the New Red, White and Blue?,” All the Presidents’ Gardens: Madison’s Cabbages to Kennedy’s Roses – How the White House Gardens Have Grown with America comes full circle as Michelle Obama breaks ground on the Kitchen Garden. Planted with more than 50 varieties of vegetables (including some grown from seeds from Monticello), berries and herbs, the garden brings local food, in the tradition of past administrations, back into the White House kitchen.
Irvin Williams, head gardener from 1962 – 2008, is quoted as saying, “What’s great about the job is that our trees, our plants, our shrubs, know nothing about politics.” A felicitous thought indeed.
The White House grounds are open to the public twice a year. Information can be found at www.whitehouse.gov in the statements and releases section.
All the Presidents’ Gardens: Madison’s Cabbages to Kennedy Roses – How the White House Grounds Have Grown with America by Marta McDowell Timber Press: Portland, Oregon, 2015.
This review appeared in Leaflet A Massachusetts Horticultural Society Publication, June, 2016