Plants, not politics: The stories behind the White House gardens

Last step in the “new look” landscaping of the Rose Garden in the south grounds of the White House gives this checkerboard pattern to the newly sodded lawn in Washington  May 21, 1962. Here thousands of presidential visitors listen as the chief executive greets them when they call in numbers too great to be accommodated inside. View is from steps outside the President’s office. (AP Photo)
The last step in the “new look” landscaping of the Rose Garden in the south grounds of the White House gives this checkerboard pattern to the newly sodded lawn in Washington May 21, 1962. Here, thousands of presidential visitors listen as the chief executive greets them when they call in numbers too great to be accommodated inside. The view is from steps outside the President’’s office. (AP Photo) (AP)
Lady Bird Johnson, left, wife of Pres. Johnson, takes a group of leaders of a "Let's Beautify America" campaign on a tour of the White House flower garden, April 28, 1965.  The group gave Mrs. Johnson a report on what some of the nation's cities are doing to make themselves more beautiful.  (AP Photo)
Lady Bird Johnson, left, wife of Pres. Johnson, takes a group of leaders of a “Let’s Beautify America” campaign on a tour of the White House flower garden, April 28, 1965. The group gave Mrs. Johnson a report on what some of the nation’s cities are doing to make themselves more beautiful. (AP Photo) (AP/Anonymous)
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, left, and President Jimmy Carter have a lunch in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on April 8, 1980. Sadat is meeting with Carter trying to break through the stalled peace talks with Israel. (AP Photo)
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, left, and President Jimmy Carter have a lunch in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on April 8, 1980. Sadat was meeting with Carter trying to break through the stalled peace talks with Israel. (AP Photo) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/Anonymous)
U.S. President George H. Bush gestures while President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan reads his papers after signing a nonproliferation treaty in the Rose Garden of the White house in Washington, Tuesday, May 19, 1992. President Nazarbayev said Tuesday that his country will adhere to agreements barring the transfer of nuclear weapons and their technology. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)
U.S. President George H. Bush gestures while President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan reads his papers after signing a nonproliferation treaty in the Rose Garden of the White house in Washington, Tuesday, May 19, 1992. President Nazarbayev said that his country will adhere to agreements barring the transfer of nuclear weapons and their technology. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds) (Associated Press/Ron Edmonds)
President Reagan and Supreme Court nominee Sandra Day O'Connor are surrounded by foliage as they stroll through the Rose Garden of the White House, July 15, 1981.  O'Connor is the first woman to be nominated to the position.  (AP Photo)
President Reagan and Supreme Court nominee Sandra Day O’Connor are surrounded by foliage as they stroll through the Rose Garden of the White House, July 15, 1981. O’Connor was the first woman to be nominated to the position. (AP Photo) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Members of the public walk past tulips growing on the South Lawn of the White House April 19, 1986, during the annual White House Spring Garden Tour. (AP Photo/J.Scott Applewhite)
Members of the public walk past tulips growing on the South Lawn of the White House April 19, 1986, during the annual White House Spring Garden Tour. (AP Photo/J.Scott Applewhite) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE)
Shown in photo is White House South Portico and portion of Rose Garden in Washington, D.C. in 1921. (AP Photo)
Shown in photo is White House South Portico and portion of Rose Garden in Washington, D.C. in 1921. (AP Photo) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Hillary Rodham Clinton, accompanied by Towsend Wolfe, director and chief curator for the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock, unveiled the latest sculptures to grace the First Lady's Garden on May 15, 1995.  Displayed at right is 'Vertical Void' by Carol Hepper.  (AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi)
Hillary Clinton, accompanied by Towsend Wolfe, director and chief curator for the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock, unveiled the latest sculptures to grace the First Lady’s Garden on May 15, 1995. Displayed at right is ‘Vertical Void’ by Carol Hepper. (AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/CHARLES TASNADI)
This is a view of the South Portico of the White House, the presidential residence, in Washington, D.C. in 1921. (AP Photo)
This is a view of the South Portico of the White House, the presidential residence, in Washington, D.C. in 1921. (AP Photo) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
First lady Laura Bush gives a tour of the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden at the White House for members of the media Friday, April 16, 2004 in Washngton. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
First lady Laura Bush gives a tour of the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden at the White House for members of the media Friday, April 16, 2004 in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) (AP/MANUEL BALCE CENETA)
When Harry Hopkins and his wife, who live at the White House with his daughter, Diana, strolled out on the White House lawn in Washington on May 10, 1943, they found Diana, garbed in overalls, busily hoeing in her victory garden. Mrs. Hopkins had just returned from duty as a volunteer nurse and still was wearing her uniform. (AP Photo)
When Harry Hopkins and his wife, who live at the White House with his daughter, Diana, strolled out on the White House lawn in Washington on May 10, 1943, they found Diana, garbed in overalls, busily hoeing in her victory garden. Mrs. Hopkins had just returned from duty as a volunteer nurse and still was wearing her uniform. (AP Photo) (AP)
Looking across the Garden on the south side looking west to the Presidents office wing is the spot where most of the roses are left in Washington on April 19, 1963. (AP Photo/JR)
Looking across the Garden on the south side looking west to the President’s office wing is the spot where most of the roses are left in Washington on April 19, 1963. (AP Photo/JR) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/JR)
President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister John Major walk in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington  Thursday, April 4, 1995, after their oval office meeting. The two men were to have a joint news conference on Tuesday  afternoon. (AP Photo/Marcy Nighswander)
President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister John Major walk in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington Thursday, April 4, 1995, after their Oval Office meeting. The two men were to have a joint news conference on Tuesday afternoon. (AP Photo/Marcy Nighswander) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/Marcy Nighswander)
The Rose Garden with tulips in foreground at the White House, Wednesday, April 26, 2006, in Washington . (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)
The Rose Garden with tulips in foreground at the White House, Wednesday, April 26, 2006, in Washington. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds) (AP/RON EDMONDS)
The Laura Bush Rose, a new hybrid named in honor of first lady Laura Bush, is displayed in the First Lady's Garden at the White House in Washington, Monday, Oct. 2, 2006. The rose was developed by Jackson & Perkins in Wasco, Calif., and Medford, Ore., which is owned by the gourmet gift catalog company Harry and David. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
The Laura Bush Rose, a new hybrid named in honor of first lady Laura Bush, is displayed in the First Lady’s Garden at the White House in Washington, Monday, Oct. 2, 2006. The rose was developed by Jackson & Perkins in Wasco, Calif., and Medford, Ore., which is owned by the gourmet gift catalog company Harry and David. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE)
Roses bloom in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Friday, May 23, 2008. The White House this week announced the annual garden tours, where visitors will be able to see the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, Rose Garden, Children's Garden and the South Lawn of the White House. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Roses bloom in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Friday, May 23, 2008. The White House had announced the annual garden tours, where visitors will be able to see the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, Rose Garden, Children’s Garden and the South Lawn of the White House. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) (AP/Charles Dharapak)
Rose Garden of the White House, Friday, Oct. 24, 2008, in Washington.     (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)
Rose Garden of the White House, Friday, Oct. 24, 2008, in Washington. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/Ron Edmonds)
First lady Michelle Obama takes part in groundbreaking of the White House Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn of the White House of the White House in Washington, Friday, March 20, 2009, with students from Washington's Bancroft Elementary School. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)
First lady Michelle Obama takes part in groundbreaking of the White House Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn of the White House of the White House in Washington, Friday, March 20, 2009, with students from Washington’s Bancroft Elementary School. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/Ron Edmonds)
First lady Michelle Obama plants herbs on the White House Kitchen Garden with students from Bancroft Elementary School in Washington, Thursday, April 9, 2009, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
First lady Michelle Obama plants herbs on the White House Kitchen Garden with students from Bancroft Elementary School in Washington, Thursday, April 9, 2009, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/Charles Dharapak)
The view toward the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden is one of the stops for visitors touring the White House gardens and grounds in Washington, Sunday, April 19, 2009. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
The view toward the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden is one of the stops for visitors touring the White House gardens and grounds in Washington, Sunday, April 19, 2009. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
First Lady Michelle Obama works with fifth graders from Bancroft Elementary School as they harvest some of the vegetables that they planted in the garden on the South Lawn of The White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 16, 2009.(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
First Lady Michelle Obama works with fifth graders from Bancroft Elementary School as they harvest some of the vegetables that they planted in the garden on the South Lawn of The White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 16, 2009. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/Alex Brandon)
Fifth graders from Bancroft Elementary School and assistant White House Chef Sam Kass weigh some of the lettuce that they and first lady Michelle Obama harvested some of the vegetables that they planted in a garden on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 16, 2009.(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Fifth graders from Bancroft Elementary School and assistant White House Chef Sam Kass weigh some of the lettuce that they and first lady Michelle Obama harvested some of the vegetables that they planted in a garden on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 16, 2009. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/Alex Brandon)
In the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden a fountain is seen with the White House behind it in Washington Thursday, Oct. 15, 2009.Tens of thousands of people are expected to stream through the White House gates this weekend for a rare opportunity to see the fragrant roses, blue salvias and towering, decades-old trees that beautify the president's back yard.  (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
In the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, a fountain is seen with the White House behind it in Washington Thursday, Oct. 15, 2009. Tens of thousands of people were expected to stream through the White House gates for a rare opportunity to see the fragrant roses, blue salvias and towering, decades-old trees that beautify the president’s backyard. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/Alex Brandon)
The tennis and basketball court is seen near the Children's Garden at the White House in Washington Thursday, Oct. 15, 2009. Tens of thousands of people are expected to stream through the White House gates this weekend for a rare opportunity to see the fragrant roses, blue salvias and towering, decades-old trees that beautify the president's back yard. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
The tennis and basketball court is seen near the Children’s Garden at the White House in Washington Thursday, Oct. 15, 2009. Tens of thousands of people were expected to stream through the White House gates for a rare opportunity to see the fragrant roses, blue salvias and towering, decades-old trees that beautify the president’s backyard. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/Alex Brandon)
The swing set, installed for the children of President Barack Obama, Malia and Sasha, is seen with the Oval Office behind it at the White House in Washington Thursday, Oct. 15, 2009. The White House gardens will be open to the public for rare tours this weekend.  (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
The swing set, installed for the children of President Barack Obama, Malia and Sasha, is seen with the Oval Office behind it at the White House in Washington Thursday, Oct. 15, 2009. The White House gardens were open to the public for rare tours. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/Alex Brandon)
First lady Michelle Obama's vegetable and herb garden is seen on the grounds at the White House in Washington Thursday, Oct. 15, 2009.  (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
First lady Michelle Obama’s vegetable and herb garden is seen on the grounds at the White House in Washington Thursday, Oct. 15, 2009. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/Alex Brandon)
"Head" by Tom Otterness is shown Wednesday, June 12, 1996 in the First Lady's Garden at the White House. The sculpture is on loan and part of a rotating exhibit. The White House garden is a place where roses are named for Nancy Reagan and Pat Nixon, and a tulip for Hillary Rodham Clinton. It is a garden that shows off with the fire of red tulips in the spring and a quilt of bronze and gold chrysanthemums in the fall. (AP Photo/Ruth Fremson)
“Head” by Tom Otterness is shown Wednesday, June 12, 1996 in the First Lady’s Garden at the White House. The sculpture was on loan and part of a rotating exhibit. The White House garden is a place where roses are named for Nancy Reagan and Pat Nixon, and a tulip for Hillary Clinton. It is a garden that shows off with the fire of red tulips in the spring and a quilt of bronze and gold chrysanthemums in the fall. (AP Photo/Ruth Fremson) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/RUTH FREMSON)
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Last step in the “new look” landscaping of the Rose Garden in the south grounds of the White House gives this checkerboard pattern to the newly sodded lawn in Washington  May 21, 1962. Here thousands of presidential visitors listen as the chief executive greets them when they call in numbers too great to be accommodated inside. View is from steps outside the President’s office. (AP Photo)
Lady Bird Johnson, left, wife of Pres. Johnson, takes a group of leaders of a "Let's Beautify America" campaign on a tour of the White House flower garden, April 28, 1965.  The group gave Mrs. Johnson a report on what some of the nation's cities are doing to make themselves more beautiful.  (AP Photo)
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, left, and President Jimmy Carter have a lunch in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on April 8, 1980. Sadat is meeting with Carter trying to break through the stalled peace talks with Israel. (AP Photo)
U.S. President George H. Bush gestures while President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan reads his papers after signing a nonproliferation treaty in the Rose Garden of the White house in Washington, Tuesday, May 19, 1992. President Nazarbayev said Tuesday that his country will adhere to agreements barring the transfer of nuclear weapons and their technology. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)
President Reagan and Supreme Court nominee Sandra Day O'Connor are surrounded by foliage as they stroll through the Rose Garden of the White House, July 15, 1981.  O'Connor is the first woman to be nominated to the position.  (AP Photo)
Members of the public walk past tulips growing on the South Lawn of the White House April 19, 1986, during the annual White House Spring Garden Tour. (AP Photo/J.Scott Applewhite)
Shown in photo is White House South Portico and portion of Rose Garden in Washington, D.C. in 1921. (AP Photo)
Hillary Rodham Clinton, accompanied by Towsend Wolfe, director and chief curator for the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock, unveiled the latest sculptures to grace the First Lady's Garden on May 15, 1995.  Displayed at right is 'Vertical Void' by Carol Hepper.  (AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi)
This is a view of the South Portico of the White House, the presidential residence, in Washington, D.C. in 1921. (AP Photo)
First lady Laura Bush gives a tour of the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden at the White House for members of the media Friday, April 16, 2004 in Washngton. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
When Harry Hopkins and his wife, who live at the White House with his daughter, Diana, strolled out on the White House lawn in Washington on May 10, 1943, they found Diana, garbed in overalls, busily hoeing in her victory garden. Mrs. Hopkins had just returned from duty as a volunteer nurse and still was wearing her uniform. (AP Photo)
Looking across the Garden on the south side looking west to the Presidents office wing is the spot where most of the roses are left in Washington on April 19, 1963. (AP Photo/JR)
President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister John Major walk in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington  Thursday, April 4, 1995, after their oval office meeting. The two men were to have a joint news conference on Tuesday  afternoon. (AP Photo/Marcy Nighswander)
The Rose Garden with tulips in foreground at the White House, Wednesday, April 26, 2006, in Washington . (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)
The Laura Bush Rose, a new hybrid named in honor of first lady Laura Bush, is displayed in the First Lady's Garden at the White House in Washington, Monday, Oct. 2, 2006. The rose was developed by Jackson & Perkins in Wasco, Calif., and Medford, Ore., which is owned by the gourmet gift catalog company Harry and David. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Roses bloom in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Friday, May 23, 2008. The White House this week announced the annual garden tours, where visitors will be able to see the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, Rose Garden, Children's Garden and the South Lawn of the White House. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Rose Garden of the White House, Friday, Oct. 24, 2008, in Washington.     (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)
First lady Michelle Obama takes part in groundbreaking of the White House Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn of the White House of the White House in Washington, Friday, March 20, 2009, with students from Washington's Bancroft Elementary School. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)
First lady Michelle Obama plants herbs on the White House Kitchen Garden with students from Bancroft Elementary School in Washington, Thursday, April 9, 2009, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
The view toward the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden is one of the stops for visitors touring the White House gardens and grounds in Washington, Sunday, April 19, 2009. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
First Lady Michelle Obama works with fifth graders from Bancroft Elementary School as they harvest some of the vegetables that they planted in the garden on the South Lawn of The White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 16, 2009.(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Fifth graders from Bancroft Elementary School and assistant White House Chef Sam Kass weigh some of the lettuce that they and first lady Michelle Obama harvested some of the vegetables that they planted in a garden on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 16, 2009.(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
In the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden a fountain is seen with the White House behind it in Washington Thursday, Oct. 15, 2009.Tens of thousands of people are expected to stream through the White House gates this weekend for a rare opportunity to see the fragrant roses, blue salvias and towering, decades-old trees that beautify the president's back yard.  (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
The tennis and basketball court is seen near the Children's Garden at the White House in Washington Thursday, Oct. 15, 2009. Tens of thousands of people are expected to stream through the White House gates this weekend for a rare opportunity to see the fragrant roses, blue salvias and towering, decades-old trees that beautify the president's back yard. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
The swing set, installed for the children of President Barack Obama, Malia and Sasha, is seen with the Oval Office behind it at the White House in Washington Thursday, Oct. 15, 2009. The White House gardens will be open to the public for rare tours this weekend.  (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
First lady Michelle Obama's vegetable and herb garden is seen on the grounds at the White House in Washington Thursday, Oct. 15, 2009.  (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
"Head" by Tom Otterness is shown Wednesday, June 12, 1996 in the First Lady's Garden at the White House. The sculpture is on loan and part of a rotating exhibit. The White House garden is a place where roses are named for Nancy Reagan and Pat Nixon, and a tulip for Hillary Rodham Clinton. It is a garden that shows off with the fire of red tulips in the spring and a quilt of bronze and gold chrysanthemums in the fall. (AP Photo/Ruth Fremson)

WASHINGTON — In the height of a contentious election season, author Marta McDowell is putting partisan politics on pause and focusing, instead, on plants. More specifically, the White House gardens.

In her new book, “All The Presidents’ Gardens,” McDowell takes a close look at the evolution of the White House’s 18 acres over the past 200 years, and their role in history — from the initiation of peace talks, to the signing of treaties and even the exchange of vows.

“I call them the Forrest Gump of gardens. If you remember Forrest Gump, he was kind of always in the background of these really key events, and that’s been true of the White House grounds as well,” McDowell said.

“If there are protests out front, the gardens are right in the background, diplomacy goes on out in the gardens. … We have history going on, right in this garden space.”

McDowell introduces one of the White House’s first garden enthusiasts, John Quincy Adams — who used to garden in the early hours of the morning before tackling his presidential duties — and chronicles the changing landscape of the grounds through the subsequent administrations.

For years, large greenhouses were attached to the White House, until President Theodore Roosevelt tore them down and built a colonial-style garden.

“That goes out, and Mrs. Wilson designs an Italian-age garden,” McDowell said. “You have different fashion styles going on in gardening.”

In 1971, the Rose Garden was transformed into a wedding venue where President Richard Nixon gave away his daughter, Patricia, in marriage. Later in the decade, President Jimmy Carter built his daughter, Amy, a tree house nestled in the branches of the blue atlas cedar on the White House’s South Lawn.

When Hillary Clinton was first lady, she filled the White House’s gardens with contemporary sculpture exhibitions. Michelle Obama’s White House Kitchen Garden gave her fodder in her fight against childhood obesity.

“They have sort of this mirror effect [for what’s going on in history],” McDowell said.

Come January, the gardens could get a whole new look — or return to a more familiar one.

“Whatever Trump would do [to the gardens], I am sure it would be over the top,” McDowell said.

If Hillary moves into the White House for a second time, she anticipates art will once again populate the political oasis.  

“And the first gentleman would have some latitude on what went down in the garden as well,” she said.

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