February 21, 2024

Botanic bestowals

At the close of the Obama administration, a onetime White House director put together a small sendoff for her office’s staff—a reunion, of sorts. Former employees from over the years came together to reminisce. They met their predecessors and post-decessors, swapped tales from their best years, and spun off old stories. And as the night drew near its end, the director passed every person a parting gift: A clipping of Swedish ivy, a boisterous little plant with glossy leaves and scalloped edges. The ivy clippings, she explained, had been cut from a mother plant that sat on the mantle of the Oval Office.

One can find the ivy in photos of Obama meeting with dignitaries of all kinds. Some elbow-rubbing with Angela Merkel? It’s there. A little tête-à-tête with Xi Jinping? It’s there. A wink tossed at the Pope? The wink may be wishful thinking, but yes, it’s there. The ivy is ever-present, observing from its perch on the fireplace.

The staff gift came with legacy. It came with gravitas. And it came with just one request: Grow the plant yourself, then pass a cutting of it on to someone else. In that way, the ivy would spread from person to person, a symbol of the connection between a government and its people.

But who, exactly, put this plant on the Oval mantle? How did it end up in the hands of staffers? And what did the Swedes have to do with it? Let’s climb this story like a trellis.


Executive horticulture, by the digits

12: Days it took to pick the petals of roses grown at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate each June

1: Annual batches of rosewater Martha Washington made with them

2: Livestock-owning Lincoln boys, whose pet goats terrorized White House gardeners (mostly by munching executive flowers on the grounds)

20: Hampshire sheep that maintained the White House lawn during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, while much of the nation’s workforce was fighting the Great War

98 lbs (44 kg): Wool shorn from that flock, later auctioned to benefit the American Red Cross

1: Book minted with this exclusive history of White House gardening, along with a trove of other botanical fun facts


A commander in crops

As it turns out, this ivy predated Barack Obama’s presidency. It was actually a gift from the then-ambassador of Ireland, Thomas J. Kiernan, to John F. Kennedy, and it has remained on the mantle for every presidency since.

Has any plant been more proximate to power, more privy to its conversations? Certainly not the mulberry bushes of Buckingham, too pestered by tourists to hear past palatial walls. Nor could it be the oaks of the Kremlin, which certainly stretch too high to listen in on diplomatic strolls. Neither, likely, are the gardens of ​​Zhongnanhai.

Executive powers turn over, change parties, take in new tenants at the executive mansion. But the ivy stays put, in its place favoring no philosophy or faction, no company or clique. To public knowledge, it’s never voted in a primary. It’s never stumped a speech. It merely watches from its perch, the sovereign of its own estate.

In fact, it’s a testament to its ruling power that this White House plant received its own TIME feature in 1984. When asked if it cooperated with the story, though, the ivy could not be reached for comment.


Quotable

“For if that ivy could talk, what stories it could tell; if it told them, of course, it could be subject to prosecution for unauthorized disclosure of classified information. The supreme virtue of plants in government is their inherent discretion. The Swedish ivy, given its potential for leaks, is an administration team player first and last.”—Kurt Andersen, in the TIME feature, “Living: A Permanent Oval Office Occupant”


Scroll this!

Time-lapsing the Oval Office mantle

In this interactive New York Times feature about the changing art of the Oval Office, you might find a familiar figure over the fireplace: You’ll see the ivy on the mantle in every presidency dating back to Gerald Ford’s.


Pop quiz

For a period of the Obama presidency, the administration replaced the Swedish ivy on the mantle with a different ivy varietal. Which fruit was that ivy named for?

A. Banana
B. Pear
C. Lychee
D. Grape

The answer is planted at the bottom of this email.


Fun fact!

Swedish ivy doesn’t come from Sweden, and it’s not really an ivy. It’s actually closely related to a mint plant.


Take me down this 🐰 hole!

By the people, for the people

If you recall, the recipients of the ivy were asked to grow it and give a cutting of it to someone else. It turns out that, too, is a tradition of administrations come and gone.

In one DC-based plant swap group, members will share their own plants’ clippings, gathered along administrations from Clinton and Bush to Obama and beyond. Pictured above is the harvest of images that one call for clippings yielded.

With the photos, people write about getting the presidential ivy from friends, plants given down from parents, surprises passed over from strangers. Taken together, the photos become a visual marker of the Swedish ivy’s spread, a symbol of connection between legacies and generations.


Pot twist

Image for article titled Swedish ivy: A presidential plant

Photo: Quartz

If a plant is to be gifted in the first act, it better be delivered by the third. That’s just Chekhov’s gun, right?

If you haven’t formulated a guess already, the writer of this email is also in possession of the plant, three generations removed from that Obama staff gathering. The initial clipping is pictured left, and the right is what it later grew to be.


Poll 

You’re an ambassador en route to your next diplomatic meeting. Which plant are you grabbing to gift?

Share your clipping of choice with us!


💬 Let’s talk!

In last week’s poll about construal level theory, 44% of you said you’re more focused on the abstract when it comes to Christmas: fuzzy feelings of hot cocoa and cookies. But about 30% of you are hyper focused on the details: flights, wrapping paper, recipes, OH MY! The rest of you either said you don’t celebrate the holiday, or already have everything done.

🐤 X this!

🤔 What did you think of today’s email?

💡 What should we obsess over next?


Today’s email was written by Gabriela Riccardi (gifted two dozen clippings and counting), edited by Annaliese Griffin (has two beautiful hanging planters that need filling), and produced by Morgan Haefner (will take all your monstera clippings please and thanks).

The correct answer to the quiz is D., Grape. That observation comes from Janet Philips, White House photo archivist for nearly three decades. Photos from the archive she managed show a grape ivy sitting on the mantle for part of Obama’s presidency—the Swedish ivy reappeared before its end.


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