The botany in Obama's official portrait represents his history

The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. is full of familiar faces. Since it opened in 1968, the museum's sole purpose has been to showcase the images of "men and women who have made significant contributions to the history, development, and culture of the people of the United States." A visitor could wander the halls for hours, but there's now more reason to high-tail it to the Presidential Gallery. As of February 12, former President Barack Obama's portrait has been added to the hall, and with it some truly beautiful botanicals.

Painted by pattern-loving portraitist Kehinde Wiley, the piece features Obama seated in front of a fortress of leaves. From this deep green background emerges three types of flowers, each representing a part of the former president's history. The white flowers are jasmine, representing Obama's birthplace and childhood in Hawaii. The pink and gold flowers are chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago, where Obama became a community organizer and, ultimately, a senator of Illinois. And the purple flowers are African blue lilies, a reminder of his father, Barack Obama, Sr., a Kenyan man.

Artist Kehinde Wiley employed the language of flowers.

President Obama's portrait

President Obama's official portrait uses flowers to tell his story.
Infographic by Tom McNamara

While you could take the flowers at face value—they're almost so beautiful they don't need an explanation—Marc Hachadourian of the New York Botanical Garden says you'd be selling yourself short. "There's a great language of flowers," he says. While we might not all use the same word for "love," we know that roses are the go-to Valentine's Day botanical. The same is true for white flowers as symbols of purity and certain spookier plants are unspoken symbols of death and decay.

RELATED: Inside the unveiling

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Barack and Michelle Obama unveil official portraits at the National Portrait Gallery
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Barack and Michelle Obama unveil official portraits at the National Portrait Gallery
Former U.S. President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama stand with their portraits during an unveiling ceremony at the Smithsonian?s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Artist Amy Sherald (R) and former first lady Michelle Obama participate in the unveiling of Mrs. Obama's portrait at the Smithsonian?s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Artist Kehinde Wiley (L) and former U.S. President Barack Obama participate in the unveiling of Obama's portrait at the Smithsonian?s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Artist Amy Sherald (R) and former first lady Michelle Obama participate in the unveiling of Mrs. Obama's portrait at the Smithsonian?s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Former U.S. President Barack Obama arrives for the unveiling of his portrait and that of former first lady Michelle Obama at the Smithsonian?s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Former U.S. President Barack Obama stands between painted portraits of himself and that of former first lady Michelle Obama during an unveiling ceremony at the Smithsonian?s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Former U.S. President Barack Obama sits with former first lady Michelle Obama prior to the the unveiling of their portraits at the Smithsonian?s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Former U.S. President Barack Obama holds hands with former first lady Michelle Obama prior to the the unveiling of their portraits at the Smithsonian?s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Former U.S. President Barack Obama stands between painted portraits of himself and that of former first lady Michelle Obama during an unveiling ceremony at the Smithsonian?s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Artists Amy Sherald (L) and Kehinde Wiley (R) gather with actor Tom Hanks prior to the unveiling of their painted portraits of former U.S. President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama at the Smithsonian?s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Former U.S. President Barack Obama sits with former first lady Michelle Obama applaud during the unveiling of their portraits at the Smithsonian?s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Former U.S. President Barack Obama sits with former first lady Michelle Obama prior to the the unveiling of their portraits at the Smithsonian?s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Former U.S. President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama react to the crowd during an unveiling ceremony for their portraits at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Former U.S. President Barack Obama greets artist Kehinde Wiley during the unveiling of his portrait at the Smithsonian?s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Former U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during the unveiling of his portrait at the Smithsonian?s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 12: Artist Kehinde Wiley, and Amy Sherald attend their official portrait unveiling of former U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama during a ceremony at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, on February 12, 2018 in Washington, DC. The portraits were commissioned by the Gallery, for Kehinde Wiley to create President Obama's portrait, and Amy Sherald that of Michelle Obama. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 12: Former U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, (L), greets Craig Robinson, during the official portrait unveiling of former U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, on February 12, 2018 in Washington, DC. The portraits were commissioned by the Gallery, for Kehinde Wiley to create President Obama's portrait, and Amy Sherald that of Michelle Obama. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 12: Artist Amy Sherald is introduced during the official portrait unveiling of former U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama during a ceremony at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, on February 12, 2018 in Washington, DC. The portraits were commissioned by the Gallery, for Kehinde Wiley to create President Obama's portrait, and Amy Sherald that of Michelle Obama. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
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The language of flowers goes back centuries. During the War of the Roses in the 1400s, one side was represented by the red rose, the other by white. In painting, flowers featured in still life art were representative of life and death. In portraiture, specific flowers could be used as emblems to represent the subject's caricature. But flower language reached its zenith under the prudish reign of Queen Victoria. "Many of these are linked to a time in Victorian history when flowers were used as a hidden or silent form of communication—almost as sort of a living code," Hachadourian says. When lovers couldn't speak directly, flowers took the place of words. "You could send a bouquet to someone and ... [deliver] your message through the code of the flowers themselves."

In a portrait, a person's physical form is usually asked to speak for itself. A smirk or a pose is all an artist typically has to work with. But by employing botanical illusions, Wiley added a narrative to his visual. "For the artist to include these in the presidential portrait is conveying something that's deeper than just the individual," Hachadourian says.

But back to the latest presidential portrait.

The blooming vine Jasminum sambac, which is native to the Himalayan region but has spread into paradisal towns the world over, was a favorite of the Hawaiian Princess Ka'iulani. The fragrant flower is called "pikake," from the Hawaiian word peacock (presumably for the way its petals fan in a circle), and its white buds are still used in making leis, exactly like the one Obama wore to prom back in 1979.

The fluffy chrysanthemums, meanwhile, represent Obama's decades-long relationship with the city of Chicago. In 1966, Mayor Richard J. Daley designated the chrysanthemum as the city's official flower. While Daley's interest in this particular plant is unclear, botanists the world over are fond of the flower's seemingly infinite uses. Not only is it beautiful in a bouquet, it can also be turned into tea or serve as a natural insecticide.

The African blue lilies, meanwhile, hint at a story that goes back much longer than Barack Obama himself. Also called the Lily of the Nile, the Agapanthus isn't a lily at all—and it isn't native to the Nile. Rather, the flower is native to South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Mozambique, and its taxonomic classification remains disputed to this day. Despite the botanical's confused story, it's an important symbol of Obama's paternal heritage and a reminder of the thing that sets him apart from the rest of the men in the Hall of Presidents.

Related: Historic photos of the White House

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Barack Obama portraits through the years
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Barack Obama portraits through the years

2009

In this photo provided by the Obama Transition Office, U.S. President-elect Barack Obama poses for an official portrait on January 13, 2009 in Washington, DC.

(Photo by Pete Souza/Obama Transition Office via Getty Images)

2010

US President Barack Obama speaks in the Grand Foyer following a meeting with senior intelligence officials and cabinet members January 5, 2010 at the White House in Washington, DC.

(Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

2011

US President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC on November 7, 2011 on tax credits included in the American Jobs Act and new executive actions that will help get veterans back to work.

(Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

2012

In this handout from the White House, official portrait of U.S. President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on December 6, 2012 in Washington, D.C.

(Photo by Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images)

2013

US President Barack Obama announces his nominee for the Federal Housing Finance Authority, North Carolina Democrat Representative Mel Watt, and his nominee for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), venture capitalist Tom Wheeler, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on May 1, 2013.

(Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

2014

U.S. President Barack Obama hosts a St. Patrick's Day reception for Prime Minister Enda Kenny of Ireland and his wife Fionnuala O'Kelly in the East Room of the White House March 14, 2014 in Washington, DC.

(Photo by Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images)

2015

US President Barack Obama speaks at an event marking the 5th anniversary of the Affordable Care Act in Washington, DC, March 25, 2015.

(Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

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The portrait's beauty is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. But Wiley's use of bold, bright botanicals is sure to attract attention for years to come. "Man's relationship with plants has always been very important," Hachadourian says. "It offers food, shelter, medicine, and then from there, it's about the beauty of the plants themselves."

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