New President, New Oval Office Plant

Grape Ivy (Cissus rhombifolia) in Oval Office

The results of the Presidential election were an unbelievable surprise to many people but, at least for plant watchers like myself, the backdrop to the photo of Trump and Obama in the Oval Office was a big surprise as well.

Let me explain.

More than a half century ago, in John F. Kennedy’s first year as President, a Swedish ivy plant, a gift from the Irish ambassador, was placed on the mantelpiece above the fireplace in the Oval Office. Although the original plant was eventually replaced with clonal offspring propagated from it, you could reliably expect to see Swedish ivy (Plectranthus verticillatus) whenever the President was photographed, typically with a foreign leader, seated classically in front of fireplace and mantel. That Swedish ivy had deservedly earned the moniker of “the most photographed plant in the world.” Detailed descriptions of the Oval Office, even from this year, still mention Swedish ivy as the mainstay of its botanical decor.

But the plant presently situated there — actually there are four of them — no longer looks like Swedish ivy. Swedish ivy, also known as creeping Charlie, has roundish leaves while this plant’s leaves come to a definite point. Yes, some Swedish ivy leaves are nominally pointed but not as sharply as those belonging to the current Oval Office botanical specimens. Also, the leaves adorning the current plants appear to be triofoliate, meaning that each leaf is actually comprised of three leaflets, in the manner of clover, as opposed to the individual, whorled leaves of Swedish ivy.

The plant now growing on the Oval Office mantel looks like grape ivy (Cissus rhombifolia) to me. Yet I have scoured the Internet for evidence of this new mantelpiece greenery without any report of it. Imagine, such a momentous change, albeit not on par with the change from Obama to Trump, and no acknowledgement of it anywhere!

Plant watchers have a habit of focusing in on the greenery no matter what else is found in any given picture. More often than not, when two world leaders sit down for a chat there is an arrangement of flowers or plants behind or between them. While others may wonder what their body language projects, I prefer to pay attention to the flora and see what hints it provides about the personality of the host country or its leader. If it’s an ordinary flower bouquet in a vase between them, I imagine that the host is just going through the motions and maybe the conversation, too, will be pro forma and of no consequence. If more substantial plants are involved, you get a feeling that the discussion will be more serious and meaningful. The presence of a single plant, or its offspring, on the Oval Office mantel through an entire generation of Presidents imparted a reassuring sense of continuity no matter which party was in charge at the time.

As it happens, Swedish ivy and grape ivy have something in common that should be of interest to gardeners in our part of the country. In addition to being tough houseplants for indoor growing in bright to diffused light, they are both excellent choices for ground cover in partial sun to shady locations. Swedish ivy is a misnomer since its habitat — South Africa and tropical Australia — is far from Sweden and, unlike ivy, it is not a vining plant. Swedish ivy puts on rapid growth and its shoot tip cuttings, placed in a shady bed in early spring, will quickly root and provide coverage until fall. A harsh freeze come winter will burn it back but it still may survive and regrow when temperatures warm. Grape ivy, on the other hand, is a true vine, reaching up to twenty feet on a trellis or trailing ad infinitum along the ground. It exhibits a significant measure of cold tolerance, too, when it is planted with frost protection in the form of overhead evergreen trees. Grape ivy is what is known as a thigmotropic plant. Thigmotropic is a term that applies to all true vines. It is derived from two Greek words meaning touch (thigmo) and turning or response (tropic). When a vine touches an object — whether a tree, a trellis, or a chain link fence — it responds by wrapping around that object, often through expansion of tendrils, as is the case with grape ivy.

Although grape ivy is tender to frost, it has a most robust relative that is rather cold hardy. Kangaroo treebine (Cissus antarctica) is a versatile and fast growing vine to ten feet that thrives in both sunny and partially shaded locations. I was first introduced to kangaroo vine thirty years ago while working at Peter Pitchess Honor Rancho in Castaic. It did an excellent job of covering a chain link fence on that facility.

Tip of the Week: Connie McGehee, who gardens in North Hills, wondered in an email why her stone fruit trees(plum, apricot, peach, and nectarine) were not producing significant amounts of fruit. Let me first commiserate and assure you that many gardeners encounter this problem for which there area number of explanations. Most often, lack of fruit is attributable to lack of sun. Fruit trees are entitled to nearly all of the day’s sun. Short of that, they may produce sporadically, if at all. It is also important that your soil be well drained. Otherwise, standing water will inhibit root development and overall health. Another reason for lack of fruit is an insufficient population of pollinating bees. Bees pollinate stone fruit trees and without pollination fruit will not be produced. Cold, rainy, or windy weather when flowers are on the trees in the spring will also curtail fruit production. Cold will kill flowers, rain will make flowers moldy, and wind will knock flowers off the tree. Ovaries that turn into fruits are flower structures so when flowers disappear prior to pollination, fruits will not develop. Pruning practices can also affect fruit formation.. Peaches and nectarines produce fruit on current season’s growth which means that if you prune after spring growth begins, you will diminish your crop. Apricots and plums, by contrast, produce on last year’s growth so you prune in order to open the tree where light can reach inside the tree to facilitate healthy flower bud development and fruit ripening. You should also make sure that trees are well mulched so that a steady supply of water, following irrigation, is available to your trees. Finally, fertilization at this time of year, prior to winter rain, is also a good practice.

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