As long as there’s been a White House in Washington D.C., there have been presidents planting trees in its gardens and lawns. Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s third president (from 1801 to 1809) and a renowned horticulturist, not only started the tradition of presidents installing commemorative trees–he also was said to have planted the first street tree in the District of Columbia.
Today, there are over 30 trees planted by presidents or first ladies throughout the White House grounds. Many of these can be seen by the public through the White House gates or during the tours of the grounds the White House occasionally allows. Here are some of the highlights:
1. John Quincy Adams/American Elm (1826)
John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, serving from 1825 to 1829, was an avid gardener and known about D.C. as “the tree planting Mr. Adams.” One of the many American Elms he installed on the White House grounds survived until 1991. First Lady Barbara Bush replaced it that same year with a new elm propagated from Adam’s tree, which still stands on the South Lawn today.
The American elm
is a towering full-bodied tree, native to the Eastern United States and Canada, and at one time was perhaps the most popular shade tree in America. In the 1930s, Dutch elm disease was introduced to the country, subsequently wiping out most of these landscape staples. Today, new disease-resistant hybrids of the American elm are on the market, and this 19th-century favorite is starting to make a comeback in parks and backyards.
2. Andrew Jackson/Southern Magnolia (1829)
In 1829, a grieving Andrew Jackson arrived in Washington with a cutting from his wife’s favorite magnolia tree on their Tennessee ranch. She had died just days after his election to the first of his two terms (1829-1837). For almost two hundred years, the “Jackson Magnolia” graced the front of the White House, and its massive blossoms perfumed the White House living quarters. It even appeared on the $20 bill until 1998. In late 2017, the tree finally had to be taken down, but it was replaced by a slip propagated from the original.
The Southern magnolia
is perhaps the most iconic of the magnolia family, with large glossy evergreen leaves and enormous white blooms. And while the tree forms the centerpiece of many a southern garden, the White House stands at the very northern end of this magnolia’s growing region. It will not do well in areas north of zone 7 (minimum 0°F).
3. Franklin D. Roosevelt/White Oak (1935)
FDR, who served as president from 1933 to 1945 was a serious amateur arborist, managing the forests and landscapes of his estate in New York’s Hyde Park. As governor of New York, he spearheaded a tree planting program for the state that was unprecedented in its ambition. And once he arrived at the White House, he oversaw the installation of a number of new trees, including in 1935 a magnificent white oak that stands today on the eastern side of the White House.
The white oak
is a familiar native tree in zones 4 through 8 (minimum -30° F) of the eastern United States. It’s a slow growing tree that prefers full sun and is known for its acorn crops and magnificent display of fall colors.
4. John F. Kennedy/’Katherine’ Crabapple (1961)
In 1961, John F. Kennedy, who served as president from 1961 until his assassination in 1963, often strolled in the White House Rose Garden when seeking inspiration to meet the challenges of the presidency. At his death, his widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, asked that a basket of cuttings from the Rose Garden be placed at his grave. Some crabapple fruits that had survived November’s frost added color to the somber offering.
are a wonderful choice for a centerpiece of a large-scale planting. They offer showy blossoms in the spring, colorful fruits in the summer and fall, and wonderful displays of fall foliage.
5. Lyndon B. Johnson/Willow Oak (1964)
Lady Bird Johnson, the wife of Lyndon B. Johnson, president from 1963 to 1969, was the better-known gardener of this first couple. She began a roadside beautification and wildflower planting project that drivers across the country still enjoy today. But President Johnson also had a say in some of the White House trees, including a willow oak.
The willow oak
, a member of the oak rather than the willow family, is found in flood plains throughout the eastern and central United States. It averages heights of 60 to 70 feet (18-21 m) and in full sun, will fill out into an attractive shade tree. Willow oaks are fast growers, which makes them a favorite in parks and other landscapes requiring quick fill. They do require a moist acidic soil and regular water, especially when they are young.
6. Jimmy Carter/Cedar of Lebanon (1978)
In 1978, the ambassador from Lebanon and other members of the Lebanese community presented Jimmy Carter (president from 1977 to 1981) with a cedar of Lebanon to plant on the White House grounds as thanks for the president’s work on Middle East peace. The cedar of Lebanon is an ancient tree that appears in several places in the Bible and on the flag of the state of Lebanon.
The cedar of Lebanon
is a true cedar and member of the Pinaceae or pine family. Its graceful branches can rise up to 70 feet (21 m) and spread 60 feet (18 m) wide, making it a stunning addition to large landscapes. However, it grows extremely slowly which may explain why it is more often found in long established gardens.
7. George H. Bush/Littleleaf Linden (1991)
In 1991, Queen Elizabeth joined President George H. Bush (president from 1989 to 1993) to plant a littleleaf linden on the White House’s South Lawn. This tree replaced another of the same variety, which was planted in 1937 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Queen Elizabeth’s father, King George VI.
Several presidents have chosen to plant littleleaf lindens
at the White House, and it’s no wonder. This low maintenance tree is a quick grower and can reach heights of 50 feet (15 m). Its wide and graceful branches offer sweet smelling flowers, a favorite of bees, and shade throughout the summer. The trees thrive in city conditions, even in areas of high traffic and pollution.
8. Bill Clinton/White Dogwood (1996)
In 1996, President Bill Clinton (1993-2001) planted a white dogwood on the South Lawn of the White House in memory of his Secretary of Commerce, Ron Brown, who had died along with 34 Commerce Department employees that week in a plane crash.
are graceful small trees with white, pink, or red blossoms in spring and attractive berries in the summer and fall. They are easy to care for and are often chosen as memorial trees because of their ethereal beauty.
9. George W. Bush/’Cherokee Princess’ Flowering Dogwood (2008)
When President George Bush’s (2001-2009) daughter Jenna married in 2008, the president planted this showy variety of flowing dogwoods along the brick path in the Rose Garden to commemorate the event. The groom, a Virginian, had suggested the planting. The dogwood is Virginia’s state tree, and its flower is Virginia’s state flower.
The ‘Cherokee Princess’
variety of flowering dogwood has the signature spring blossoms of all dogwoods but with an added bonus–its leaves turn a stunning scarlet come fall.
10. Barack Obama/Littleleaf Linden (2009)
The first lady, Michelle Obama, was more known for her White House vegetable garden than for her tree planting, but her husband (president from 2009 to 2017) dutifully carried on the tradition of planting commemorative trees.
In 2009, he dug the hole for the popular (at least with presidents) littleleaf linden in place of a failing scarlet oak President Bush had planted the year before. President Bush, in turn, had been trying to replace the scarlet oak planted in the same spot in 1889 by Benjamin Harrison.
All presidents worry about how they’ll be remembered. Perhaps that’s why so many have embraced the tradition of planting commemorative trees on the White House grounds. No matter what else their legacies, the trees will always bring pleasure and beauty to future generations of visitors to that historic place.