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Forget the Roses, Give the White House a Native Plant Garden

The dustup over First Lady Melania Trump's recent renovation misses a bigger problem with the Rose Garden: It's too heavy on introduced species.

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 ethics law intended as a wall between government functions and partisan politics. Many onlookers were also miffed at the state of the Rose Garden itself.

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

Criticism of the redesign was mostly characterized by exaggerated claims and kneejerk partisan outrage disproportionate to the changes made. And frankly, to borrow a phrase, I really don’t care, do you? The real problem with the White House Rose Garden—and the grounds overall—is one that predates the Trump administration: There aren’t enough native plants.

As Audubon readers know, landscaping with native plants helps to reclaim lost wildlife habitat, providing birds and other critters with sorely needed sources of food and shelter. It also tends to save water and require little maintenance, since native species are adapted to their surroundings. Using Audubon’s native plant database, the occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or any other address in the country can enter their ZIP code and find suggestions for bird-friendly plants in their area and vendors who can provide them.

Today, however, the Rose Garden is filled with cultivars of its namesake flowers developed from non-native species. And it seems all of the 18 acres of grounds have room for improvement. “When I got to the White House the very first time, I realized they have so many non-native plants,” says Jil Swearingen, a board member of the Maryland Native Plant Society. While she hasn’t spent much time in the Rose Garden, Swearingen got to know the property overall as a biologist with the National Park Service, which oversees the grounds, before retiring in 2017. “They have tons—acres, probably—of English ivy,” an invasive groundcover through whose foliage crept throngs of rats, she says. Easy political metaphors aside, I say we uproot that infested ivy and toss it into the Potomac.

With the right mix of native species, the White House grounds could be quite an avian haven. “That’s not a small plot of land down there,” says Chris Murray, president of the DC Audubon Society. “If you really planned it out, you could get some really interesting birds.” Murray notes that, for Bird-Lore, this magazine’s predecessor, President Theodore Roosevelt made from memory a lengthy list of 93 bird species he saw on and around the property, including loads of sparrows and warblers, Indigo Bunting, and Eastern Screech-Owl. 

Of course, as the People’s House, what happens at the White House has symbolic heft that can be felt beyond its grounds. “It’s an opportunity to be a demonstration for things that we can all aspire to, to support our nation’s wildlife,” says John Rowden, Audubon’s senior director for bird-friendly communities.

A native-focused Rose Garden wouldn’t be unprecedented. In 1903, according to a report on Melania Trump’s renovation, First Lady Edith Roosevelt showcased 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 overhauled the Roosevelt design.) The Washington Post at the time called the Roosevelt garden a “return to those sturdy plants which form the national flora.”  

It’s time to return once more to those sturdy plants. To that end, here are some suggestions for native species that will bring color—and birds—to the White House. 

Shrubs and Small Trees

Dark-eyed Junco and Eastern redbud. Photo: Noppadol Paothong

Some critics were aghast at the removal of crabapple trees from the Rose Garden. Not Swearingen. “I thought, ‘Oh good, maybe we can get some native trees and shrubs finally,’” she says. 

Swearingen and Rowden recommend Eastern redbud, both for its brilliant pink blooms that provide early spring nectar and pollen for pollinators, and its seeds that feed a host of birds and other wildlife later in the year. Other good choices include American plum with its white blossoms and tasty fruit, and downy serviceberry, which cardinals, tanagers, and grosbeaks can’t resist.

Hedges 

Joe Pye weed. Photo: Kristina Deckert/Audubon

Non-native boxwoods like those in the Rose Garden make a fine hedge and are popular in yards and gardens, but we can do better. Pink azalea, native to the region, provides similar structure to help define spaces, yet its fragrant, funnel-shaped blossoms are a hit with Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and pollinating insects. Joe Pye weed is likewise a bird-friendly native perennial that, planted in groups, can provide a nice garden border. Its purplish flowers are a big draw for butterflies, and its seed heads will last into winter, offering welcome nutrition for chickadees, titmice, and other birds. Another good option is fragrant sumac, whose sticky red berries also persist into the cold season.

Flowers 

Ruby-throated Hummingbird and cardinal flower. Photo: Will Stuart

Sure, tulips and geraniums provide a nice pop of color, but so can some native alternatives that are better for birds. It’s hard to imagine a redder red than that of cardinal flower, a perennial that hummingbirds love. Some butterflies and moths lay their eggs in the plant as well, as they do with some other species on this list, so planting cardinal flower also provides caterpillars for young birds to eat. Bee balm, also known as wild bergamot, smells amazing, adds a lovely 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. Photo: Douglas Tallamy

There doesnt seem to be much in the way of ground cover plants in the Rose Garden, but according to Swearingen’s report, English ivy is running rampant across the wider White House grounds. 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 blooms are popular with hummingbirds in early spring. Another good bet is Virginia strawberry, also called wild strawberry, with its white spring blossoms followed by tasty berries that will draw in Cedar Waxwings, orioles, and probably sweet-toothed secret service agents. 

Rowden mentions one other native species, smooth beggartick—not a ground cover but a perennial herb—that may be a good choice to plant on the grounds next spring. By late summer its vibrant yellow blossoms provide nectar for bees and other pollinators. It requires wet soil, however, and its appeal may depend on who occupies the White House. Its genus is Bidens.

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