Forget the roses, give the White House a garden of native plants

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Criticism of First Lady Melania Trump’s recent Republican National Convention speech, delivered from the White House Rose Garden, was not limited to its perceived violation of the Hatch Act, an ethical law designed as a wall between government functions and partisan politics. Numerous spectators were also upset by the condition of the rose garden itself.

In July, the First Lady announced that she was undertaking the first major renovation of the garden—which measures approximately 125 feet by 60 feet and sits just outside the Oval Office—since the Kennedy administration. The new look would honor the elegance of the 1962 plan while making some overdue improvements for utilities, drainage and accessibility. Unveiled two days before the convention, however, the redesign took the opposite turn not only for being undertaken during a deadly pandemic and widespread social unrest, but for removing 10 crabapples from the garden perimeter (they would be replanted elsewhere on the White House grounds) and addition of a 3 foot wide limestone walkway around the central lawn of the garden.

Criticism of the redesign has been primarily characterized by exaggerated claims and instinctive partisan outrage disproportionate to the changes made. And frankly, to borrow a phrase, I really don’t care, do I? The real problem with the White House Rose Garden – and the grounds in general – predates the Trump administration: There aren’t enough native plants.

As Audubon readers know that landscaping with native plants helps reclaim lost wildlife habitat, providing birds and other creatures with much-needed food and shelter sources. It also tends to save water and is low maintenance, as native species are adapted to their environment. Using Audubon native plant database, occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or any other address in the country can enter their zip code and find suggestions of bird-friendly plants in their area and vendors who can provide them.

Today, however, the Rose Garden is full of cultivars of its homonymous flowers developed from non-native species. And it looks like all 18 acres of land could be improved. “When I first arrived at the White House, I realized they had so many many non-native plants, ”says Jil Swearingen, board member of the Maryland Native Plant Society. Although she didn’t spend much time in the rose garden, Swearingen got to know the property as a whole as a National Park Service biologist, who oversees the grounds, before retiring in 2017. “They have tons – acres, probably – of English ivy, ”an invasive ground cover that crowds of rats crept through with foliage, she said. Easy political metaphors aside, I’m saying we’re uprooting this infested ivy and throwing it in the Potomac.

With the right mix of native species, the grounds of the White House could be quite an avian refuge. “It’s not a small field there,” says Chris Murray, president of the DC Audubon Company. “If you really planned it out, you might get some really interesting birds.” Murray notes that for History of birds, the predecessor of this magazine, President Theodore Roosevelt made a long memory list of 93 bird species he saw on and around the property, including heaps of sparrows and warblers, indigo buntings and eastern screech owls.

Of course, as the House of the People, what happens in the White House has a symbolic weight that can be felt beyond its motives. “This is an opportunity to be a demonstration of things we can all aspire to, to support our country’s wildlife,” said John Rowden, Audubon’s senior director for bird-friendly communities.

A rose garden focused on the natives would not be without precedent. In 1903, according to a report During Melania Trump’s renovation, First Lady Edith Roosevelt featured native plants in what was then called the West Garden. (It became known as the Rose Garden a decade later, when First Lady Ellen Wilson revised Roosevelt’s design.) The Washington Post at the time called the Roosevelt garden a “return to those hardy plants which form the national flora”.

It’s time to get back to these hardy plants once again. To that end, here are some suggestions of native species that will bring color and birds to the White House.

Shrubs and small trees

Slate Junco and Oriental Redbud.  Noppadol Paothong

Some critics have been appalled by the removal of the crabapples from the rose garden. Not swear. “I was like, ‘Oh, well, maybe we can finally get some native trees and shrubs,’” she says.

Swearingen and Rowden recommend Eastern Redbud, both for its brilliant pink flowers which provide nectar and pollen in early spring for pollinators, and for its seeds which nourish a multitude of birds and other wildlife later in the year. Other good choices include American plum with its white flowers and tasty fruits, and fluffy serviceberry, which cardinals, tangaras and grosbeaks cannot resist.

Hedges

Joe Pye of the grass.  Kristina Deckert / Audubon

Non-native boxwoods like the rose garden make a beautiful hedge and are popular in yards and gardens, but we can do better. Pink azalea, native to the region, offers a similar structure to help define spaces, but its fragrant funnel-shaped flowers are a hit with ruby-throated hummingbirds and pollinating insects. Joe Pye’s Weed is also a native bird-friendly perennial that when planted in groups can provide a beautiful garden border. Its purplish flowers are a great butterfly attraction, and its seed heads will last into winter, providing welcome nutrition for chickadees, chickadees, and other birds. Another good option is fragrant sumac, whose sticky red berries also persist in the cold season.

Flowers

Ruby-throated hummingbird and cardinal flower.  Will stuart

Sure, tulips and geraniums provide a nice pop of color, but so do some native alternatives that are better for birds. It’s hard to imagine a red more red than that of cardinal flower, a perennial plant that hummingbirds love. Some butterflies and moths also lay their eggs in the plant, as they do with other species on this list, so planting cardinal flowers also provides caterpillars to eat for young birds. Lemon balm, also known as wild bergamot, smells great, adds a pretty lavender hue to the garden, and attracts hummingbirds. Another showy option favored by hummingbirds, butterflies and bees is red columbine.

Ground cover

Wild blue phlox.  Douglas tallamy

There’s noIt doesn’t seem to be much in the way of ground cover plants in the rose garden, but according to Swearingen’s report, English ivy is rampant on the wider grounds of the White House. Rowden is not a fan. “English ivy is the worst,” he says. “Thanks, English, but we don’t need your ivy here. “

Instead, he recommends wild blue phlox, sometimes known as sweet William, an evergreen ground cover whose lavender blue flowers are popular with hummingbirds in early spring. Another good bet is Virginia strawberry, also called wild strawberry, with its white spring blossoms followed by savory berries that will attract cedar waxwings, orioles, and possibly sweet-toothed Secret Service agents.

Rowden mentions another native species, smooth beggar– not a ground cover but a perennial grass – this can be a good choice for planting in the field next spring. In late summer, its bright yellow flowers provide nectar for bees and other pollinators. However, it does require moist soil, and its appeal may depend on who occupies the White House. Its kind is Biden.

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