Why Switzerland Is Growing A Native Plant Oasis in the Heart of Washington

The Swiss ambassador, an avid birder and bird photographer, is on a mission to remake a former farm into a biodiversity haven.

When Jacques Pitteloud arrived at his new home and office in the fall of 2019, he was dismayed to discover the state of the property. As Switzerland’s new ambassador to the United States, he had a piece of prime real estate in northwest Washington, D.C.,— a historic six-acre stretch of land that once was a farm called Single Oak. Now it hosted the country's sleek, modern residence, and an embassy under renovation. But the grounds looked and were treated like a golf course.

"I felt a tremendous amount of guilt and shame when I took over the residence," he says. "Golf courses are nice to look at, but they're ecological disasters."

Normal diplomatic life was soon upended by the pandemic, and since then he’s been on a mission to rewild the expansive grounds, aiming to create a biodiversity reserve marked by the native plants of the region. He forbid the use of pesticides and allowed the lawn to grow out in spotty patches. Using resources such as Audubon’s native plants database and guide to birds, he worked closely with a local landscape designer, Aldertree Garden, that specializes in native plants. They uprooted all the non-native bushes and trees, such as ornamental burning bush and non-productive grass, and replaced them with meadows, bushes, and native trees, including white oak, scarlet oak, black oak, and others.

Wildlife was also a part of his rewilding vision. Local beekeepers now manage the embassy’s colony of 50 hives, and he built a home for the Eastern Screech-Owl, which he hopes will someday take up residence on the ground. (The nest box did lure an owl briefly, but the bird only spent two nights—Pitteloud is optimistic it may return.)

"Within a short time, the results are amazing," Pitteloud tells me as he walks through the grounds, bending down from time to time to check on the plants or to take a closer view at the frogs in a newly installed pond. "We have so many more birds, butterflies. It's incredible how quickly they returned. We have so many fireflies at night, it's like fireworks."

Pitteloud’s lifelong love of birds primed him for this passion project. His hobby also happens to fit in well with the ambassador lifestyle. Before assuming his post in Washington, he served as ambassador to Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, and the Seychelles, and spent as much time as possible exploring the local birdlife. While in Kenya, for example, he traveled to regions of the country including Samburu, Nyeri, Arabuko, and other areas, and photographed, by his estimates, more than 400 species—or approximately three-quarters of Kenya's birdlife. He eventually collected his photos into a book, Wings of Kenya, a Birdwatcher's Paradise.

Soon after his arrival in Washington, with the pandemic in full swing and diplomatic life thrown into disarray, Pitteloud immersed himself in local birding clubs and outings as a way of getting to know his new community and environment. His snapshot of an unusual Painted Bunting sighting on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park—a bird more typically found in Florida than in southern Maryland—was featured in the Washington Post.

Pitteloud's efforts to rewild the embassy and residence are a part of a growing movement of local embassies adding more natural elements to their buildings and grounds. The Finnish embassy prides itself on being the first U.S. Green Building Council LEED-certified embassy in Washington. The Irish ambassador's residence has a low-impact, xeriscaped garden. The Tunisian embassy and residence both have wild, untamed pollinator gardens, in addition to vegetable gardens. The Canadian residence on Pennsylvania Avenue has beehives, and a community-engaged program around beekeeping.

But the Swiss are perhaps going the furthest on the land they tend. Pitteloud says the efforts are labor- and cost-intensive, but he sees no other option. And staff in D.C. and back in Switzerland at the foreign ministry, he says, have largely applauded the work—especially as the effects of climate change, and the dramatic loss of birdlife around the world, gain more attention. Around the time he took the helm at the embassy, in September 2019, a team of scientists concluded that North America has lost some 3 billion breeding adult birds since 1970, with every biome impacted.

The news hit Pitteloud hard: "We're five minutes to midnight on biodiversity loss," he says. "In 30 years, we'll have empty skies, with no songbirds left. We'll have to carry bees around because we won't be able to pollinate our agriculture."

Though the Swiss embassy in Washington is only one property, Pitteloud hopes that by fostering favorable habitats for wildlife and inviting in beekeepers and other neighborhood groups, he is engaging in a form of “environmental diplomacy." Essentially his goal is to set an example for others, whether local neighbors or other embassies (or maybe even the White House, a property whose garden is notably lacking in native plants).

Because ambassadors and their staff often cycle in and out of their posts every few years, Pitteloud may never see the full effects of the landscaping changes come to fruition, but he hopes the legacy lasts. "I would love to see my successor, 30 years from now, see big trees and know they were planted by someone who was trying to help nature,” he says.