A History of White House Flowers

garden

Putting politics aside for a few minutes, there's something we can all agree on: flowers are fantastic.

And, at the White House, a place that holds so many ceremonial events, they're an integral part of each experience, from everyday arrangements enjoyed by visitors to the Oval Office to the displays at official state dinners.

The Changing Point

Until the late 1850s, however, fresh flowers were not part of the White House Décor. In 1857, President Buchanan, allegedly at the behest of his niece, Harriet Lane, had conservatories built where the West Wing now stands.

Stereographs from the Library of Congress collections show potted palms, azaleas, ferns, oranges, "Easter" lilies, chrysanthemums, and a variety of tropical plants filling the glass houses.

The First Official White House Florists

In the 1870s, First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes hired the first official White House Florists, five "bouquet makers." These floral designers made custom floral arrangements for Mrs. Hayes to send to welcome "women of importance" to Washington so that she did not have to try to visit multiple individuals each day.

(Prior to this it was the custom for the First Lady to pay a call to every wife of an ambassador or senator, or mother of a representative or judge visiting Washington. As the population swelled and transportation improved, this grew into an unmanageable task. Flowers to the rescue!)

Flowers became even more ingrained in Presidential traditions when President Grover Cleveland married Frances Folsom, and the entire White House was transformed into a garden. Pansiesfernssalviabegonias, orchids, and roses were part of the symbolic floral displays.

conservatory in white house
Conservatory in White House, situated where the West Wing currently is. Photo by Library of Congress | Frances Benjamin Johnson Collection

After Cleveland

The conservatories were torn down in 1902 to make way for the modern "West Wing" offices (and to allow the entirety of the existing White House to hold Theodore Roosevelt's large family), but by then, flowers were firmly established as essential to the White House routine.

In addition to selecting flowers in the colors and designs preferred by Presidents and First Ladies, the White House Florists have had to read up on the international meanings of flowers, and how they relate to the customs of visiting dignitaries. If, for example, in a certain country, a specific flower is traditionally used only in funeral arrangements, that flower would not make a great centerpiece for a state dinner.

While styles have changed over the years, from the formal "roundy moundy" displays favored by Jacqueline Kennedy to the "gardenesque" looks requested by Michelle Obama, flowers have remained front and center at the White House, and every resident, including Presidents and First Ladies, have had their favorites.

Here are some flowers that played memorable parts in White House events, and tips for growing them yourself:

Peonies

Nancy Clarke, the White House Chief Floral Designer for 25 years, recounted in her book, My First Ladies, that Nancy Reagan's favorite flowers were white peonies, and that she constantly had to remind Mrs. Reagan that peonies were only available in the spring.

white peonies in a garden
White Peonies add an elegant touch to any garden, and are easy to take care of as soon as they're established.
bouquet of peonies
Peonies are ideal for bouquets, and as cut flowers due to their huge showy blooms and longitivity.

In addition to being beautiful in flower arrangements, peonies are gorgeous and easy to grow garden flowers. There are several different types of peonies, with flowers in shades of pink, white, deep burgundy, rose, and even peach, yellow, red, and black.

You'll plant peony roots 1-2 inches deep in rich, well-drained soil in full sun to partial shade. They bloom in the spring to early summer (depending on your location). Peonies are easy to grow and long-lasting. If you drive by an abandoned farmhouse in the spring, you’ll often see rows of peonies just blooming away along one side of the house.

Salvia

Is "passion" the first thing you think of when you think of Grover Cleveland, our 22nd, and 24th President? In 1886, near the beginning of his first term, he married Frances Folsom, 28 years his junior, in the Blue Room of the White House, where salvia, symbolizing passion, decorated the hearth. Cleveland was the only president to get married in the White House, and flowers were an enormous part of the day.

salvia hot lips
Salvia Hot Lips is a bi-color meadow sage, or salvia, which symbolizes passion and was used in excess for the Cleveland Wedding to Frances Folsom.
white house southeast garden
The White House Southeast garden in bloom during the Spring of 1921. Photo by Library of Congress | Frances Benjamin Johnson Collection

There are hundreds of species of salvia, many of which make excellent garden plants. If you want to bring the passion to your own garden, you could grow 'Hot Lips', a red and white bicolor variety. It's a small bushy perennial in zones 8-10.

In cooler climates, purple or white Meadow Sage types attract hummingbirds and withstand deer pressure. All salvias need full sun and well-drained soil to thrive.

Narcissus

Rosylnn Carter loved Camellias and Narcissus, flowers that reminded her of her garden at home in Georgia. Dottie Temple, Chief Floral Designer during the Carter administration carried over the use of Narcissus for holiday decorations during Reagan's first year in office.

She wrote in her book, Flowers, White House Style that they discovered that Reagan was allergic to the plants when he started uncontrollably sneezing during a walk through to preview the decorations. "We moved them to rooms he frequented less often," she said.

childrens garden in whitehouse
Northwest View of the Childrens Garden Photo from Library of Congress | Jack E. Boucher Collections
narcissus
Narcissus, commonly known as daffodils, make grand statements when planted in mass. Come Spring, your garden comes alive with these bright blooms.

Narcissus are harbingers of spring in the garden, and one of the most popular flower bulbs grown. Plant these 6 inches deep outside in the fall in full sun (or you won't get flowers year after year) in well-drained soil. In the spring, wait to cut back foliage until it has turned yellow so the bulb can store energy for the next year’s blooms.

Blue Cornflowers

President John F. Kennedy was partial to wearing a blue cornflower in his jacket lapel. His son, John F. Kennedy, Jr. wore one as a boutonniere at his own wedding in honor of his father.

In France, these native wildflowers (there are many species) are considered symbols of the World War I Armistice. They're sometimes mixed with seeds of corn poppies, or red poppies (sometimes called "Flanders Poppies"), another, more common symbol of remembrance, to create fields of red and blue in the late spring and early summer.

Both blue cornflowers and red poppies are easy to grow from seed sown in well-prepared soil in full sun. Good contact with the soil is essential! (If you want to grow these two pretty wildflowers, check out our instructions for planting wildflowers.

blue cornflower
Blue Cornflower, is also known as Bachelor Buttons, as bachelors would wear this flower when they developed feelings for another. The longer the flower lasted, the high
closeup of pink freesia
Freesia is a quick blooming tropical bulb, and is winter hardy in zones 9-10. Don't worry though - you can grow them in colder climates as long as you lift and store them for the winter.

Freesia

While Freesia might not have been First Lady Barbara Bush's favorite flower (there's no record that she didn't like it, but there's no record of it being a special request of hers), these fragrant cutting flowers did have a part in one of Floral Designer Nancy Clark's funny memories from her time at the White House.

In an interview with the Daily Herald, Clark said that while her husband was Vice President, Mrs. Bush was at the White House before a Christmastime dinner when she ended up running around the dining room helping the staff put out the tips of freesia flowers that had caught fire from the candles that were part of the arrangements!

Freesias are beloved for their incredible scent, but they're available in multiple colors, including pastel and bright primary shades. Plant Freesia in full sun to partial shade in the spring and enjoy the flowers throughout the summer.

In zones 8 and under, the corms can be dug and stored for the winter and replanted the following spring.

Tulips

Upon becoming First Lady, Laura Bush leaned toward monochromatic floral arrangements of just one or two flower types, often tulips or roses.

Whatever your favorite color, there's a tulip to match it. Plant tulips in the fall in well-drained soil in full sun. They require a cold period to develop blooms, and put on the best show in zones 7 and higher.

While tulips will sometimes perennialize, the big, showy hybrid types used for cut flower arrangements are better composted and then re-planted in the fall.

color block tulip garden
Purple, Orange, and Red Tulips make a grand statement, especially when planted in mass.
flame calla lily
Flame Calla Lily provides a modern stylistic look, especially when the blooms are brought inside as cutflowers.

Calla Lilies

When Michelle Obama moved into the White House, she brought a more contemporary look to the art and furnishings, swapping in more modern art pieces around the residence. With that, she enjoyed streamlined, elegant flowers, such as Calla Lilies.

Gardeners in all areas can enjoy Calla blooms in the garden during the summer. Bulbs will overwinter outdoors in zones 8-11. Plant bulbs 4 inches deep in full sun.

If you plan to cut for enjoying indoors, make sure to plant Callas in multiples of 3 so you’ll have enough flowers for inside and out.

Larkspur

President Obama told Florist Nancy Clarke, "My favorite thing about living in the White House is the flowers!" Clarke retired in 2009, opening the door for new florists to create their own visions.

Laura Dowling succeeded Clark, and interpreted Michelle Obama's interest for grand events of a loose, garden style in some truly remarkable ways, one of which was a floral chandelier for a February 2014 state dinner made from American-grown larkspur.

Larkspur is a gorgeous wildflower that's easy to grow from seed, where it has full sun and moist, well-drained soil. It's a favorite in our wildflower mixes, and a great addition to meadows.

larkspur of delphinium standing tall
Larkspur, also commonly known as Delphinium, provides long stocks of blooms that are perfect for bouquets.

Grow a little bit of history at home by incorporating these flowers into your garden and you’ll always have some handy trivia for guests when you’re giving garden tours.

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