Living: A Permanent Oval Office Occupant

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Presidents come and go, but the Swedish ivy stays

Even at this time of year, Washington, D.C., is crawling with flowers and plants. Though the city is now consumed by manic post-election talk, the local flora manage to get an awful lot of attention. Civic boosters tend to be horticultural zealots as well. And they have a point: Washington is high spirited and blithe, by Washington's standards, when its greenswards are green and the vast federal flower patches are blooming. Just a few weeks ago in Rock Creek Park, for instance, the National Park Service had a Dixieland band and a blue-grass group come out and celebrate the fall foliage. The moment spring begins, you may be sure, Washingtonians will turn emphatic about the glorious forsythia, the jonquils and daffodils and, of course, all the perfect cherry blossoms. They go on and on about the dogwoods, the fields of hyacinths and azaleas, the quarter-million tulips planted near the Tidal Basin. Special pilgrimages are urged on visitors: not just the National Arboretum—precious camellias! amazing bonsai!—but the wonders of Dumbarton Oaks and the little garden at the foot of Capitol Hill. Washington, in sum, is very serious, even about its plants.

If there is a hierarchy among Washington's plants, those on the 19 acres around the White House, like osmanthus and purple winter creeper, must be the swells, the botanical elite of the city, maybe of the nation. And one plant is at the top of that heap. No other in history has been more photographed, more glimpsed in person by the world's high and mighty, more privy (if a plant can by privy) to the portentous intimacies of world politics, than a certain Swedish ivy (Plectranthus australis) that dwells deep inside the Executive Mansion.

The Oval Office may be the headiest place in America. When the President, sitting in his desk chair at the southern tip of the oval, stares dead ahead to the far wall, he sees The Plant. Anywhere else it would be a robust but unremarkable Swedish ivy. But there on the marble mantelpiece, day after consequential day, it basks in the power and the glory. No matter who has been inaugurated since 1961, The Plant has always stayed.

Sure, other plants live in the Oval Office—palms on the floor, half a dozen dwarf spathiphyllum, sometimes pots of ornamental peppers. The Swedish ivy, however, is above the rest, literally and figuratively. As the most important houseplant on earth, it gets, one imagines, special attention, the perquisites of position. Perhaps the leaves are individually daubed and polished each evening, watered with Maryland spring water specially sluiced in through titanium pipes, pruned by Kyoto-trained specialists. Maybe an occasional Marine Band rendition of Hail to the Schefflera!

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