Katie Hendrick, Society Of American Florists (SAF) , June 1, 2011
During his visit to the British royal family on May 24, President Obama brought a special gift: plants and seeds from the White House greenhouse and Monticello, presented in a box made of magnolia wood.
What sounds like a relatively simple collection of gifts was anything but simple to identify, according to the man responsible for choosing said plants and seeds.
Just eight days before the visit, Michael Perry, an inspector with the U. S. Department of Agriculture, was informed of the President’s desire to offer a fresh gift with ties to American history. He would need to identify plants that not only pass the European Union’s regulations regarding pests, diseases and growing media, but also the U.S. State Department’s desire for plants grown on historic landmarks.
“It was quite challenging,” Perry said of the task, which he was honored to carry out.
For four days, he worked feverishly — relying on his horticultural knowledge, past experience and visual inspection.
Among the European Union’s requirements: plants had to be free of pests and diseases, including potato spindle, viroid and xanthomonous campestris (a bacteria); flowers and fruits; virus and virus-like organisms; nemotoads, insects, mites and funghi; and Thrips polmi. Plants had to arrive in a peat-less media, so no foreign soil was introduced in the U.K.
Importers would typically know what products are acceptable based on working routinely with the same kinds of product from the same sources — but the White House and Monticello are not exactly a typical source, so Perry had to make sure each item would pass muster.
He poured through the State Department’s wish list and chose 11 plants, including American holly and Blackberry Lily, and seeds for an additional 23 plants. Ironically enough, the only gift item that initially posed a concern was not one of the plants but the box that held them.
“ . . . There was concern that the box itself was unacceptable because it contained bark,” Perry said. “But ultimately, they determined that since it was in a preserved state,” it was okay.