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Throughout the history of the White House and the grounds surrounding it, visitors have commented on the trees and foliage that continually add to the beauty of the grounds. In 1791, Washington city planner Pierre Charles L’Enfant reserved approximately eighty-two acres surrounding the White House as a park. This area came to be known as “President’s Park.” Thomas Jefferson inherited a construction site when he came into office. During his two terms, he prepared plans to improve the grounds to include groves of trees, gardens, and graveled driveways, with a fence that enclosed eight acres around the residence. His plan was detailed and influenced the site’s overall layout until the Civil War. President John Quincy Adams was an enthusiastic gardener who planted trees, herbs, and vegetables and created groves of fruit and forest trees. Adams brought John Foy, Henry Clay’s former gardener working at the Capitol, to advise him on groves of fruit and forest trees.

Besides the arboricultural preferences of the early presidents, a major influence in the development of White House foliage was landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing. His goal was to create, “a collection of all the trees that will grow in the climate of Washington . . . to form a public museum of living trees and shrubs.”1 Although his untimely death in a steamboat accident in 1852 stalled his White House landscape plan from being implemented, his design influenced the landscaping around the White House and on the Mall in one way or another for fifty years, including the addition of a "parade ground" that is today's Ellipse.

President Rutherford B. Hayes established the tradition of planting “commemorative” trees representing each president and state in the 1870s. More than three dozen special commemorative trees, in addition to a great variety of other trees, cover the grounds surrounding President’s Park. Among the trees that present vivid fall colors at the White House include White Oaks planted during the administrations of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover, a Sugar Maple planted by President Ronald Reagan, and a Scarlet Oak planted during the administration of Benjamin Harrison.

As summer turns to fall, trees at the White House reflect the changing season by turning beautiful shades of yellow, orange and brown. Along with the bursting of leaves and flowers in the spring, seasonal transitions provide a wonderful opportunity to admire the foliage, gardens, and nature around the White House. One Washington observer wrote in 1906, “There is nothing in nature, perhaps, more satisfying to the eye than the autumn foliage of these trees.”2

Public enjoyment of the grounds around the White House expands the knowledge and appreciation of the White House beyond the Residence itself. During the 1870s, First Lady Julia Grant began hosting garden parties at the White House. Although security has increased around the White House grounds, the public can still enjoy the seasonal foliage of the White House along President’s Park, and through bi-annual spring and fall White House gardens and grounds tours, begun by First Lady Patricia Nixon in 1972.

This article was originally published October 23, 2015

Footnotes & Resources

1 William Seale, The White House Garden (Washington, D.C: White House Historical Association, 1996), 102.

2 “Types of Street Trees,” Evening Sun, September 30, 1906, pg. 28.