A History of White House Flowers and Florists

Flowers abound in the White House conservatory, depicted in this illustration as it was in 1858. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper
Flowers abound in the White House conservatory, depicted in this illustration as it was in 1858. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

April showers might bring May flowers, but White House florists keep the executive mansion in bloom year round. Today the White House Chief Floral Designer and her staff have a flower shop in the basement of the mansion, beneath the North Portico. They create and maintain arrangements for display in the public and private rooms of the White House and design fabulous centerpieces for events of all kinds. There is hardly a table or mantel that goes unadorned—flowers have become central to the building’s décor.

Yet in the past their presence has not been a priority. In the early 19th century, Americans rarely brought flowers indoors, believing they deprived a room of oxygen and released harmful vapors into the air. Wax flowers took the place of the real thing. That belief faded, however, by the 1850s when Harriet Lane—niece and surrogate first lady for President James Buchanan introduced fresh floral arrangements to the White House. Buchanan ordered the construction of a conservatory on the west side of the White House grounds, giving his niece ready access to choice blooms. Visitors appreciated Lane’s floral flair. The New York Times reported that “bouquets of rare flowers filled the air with perfume” at an 1858 reception. The public also had access to the conservatory, where they could experience the “rare and odorous plants” that flourished under the care of head gardener John Watt.

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