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Providing Bushes for the Bushes

Hundreds of boxwoods grace the inaugural reviewing stands.

When Hillary Clinton wanted red berries to match her inaugural outfit, Vanessa Wheeler and John Johnston didn’t question the request. They also didn’t bother to explain that red berries don’t grow on the 400 or so boxwoods that they were supplying for the reviewing stand.

Instead, they did what any good enterprising business person would have done — they got some red berries.

“We found out at the last minute,” Wheeler said. “We ordered thousands of [fake] berries, but they had to be taken apart and wired back together in clumps of five.”

They got it done in time, and used picks to stick them in the boxwoods. Everything looked fine — until it started to rain. The berries were merely painted Styrofoam, and when it started raining, Wheeler said, “They started popping like popcorn. I’m sure by the time she arrived, they had all blown apart.”

Wheeler and Johnston didn’t attend the inaugural, but when they went to pick up the boxwoods the next day, all the red was gone. Nobody ever complained, so it doesn’t seem like the red berries were too critical.

“We laughed hysterically,” Wheeler said. “That was a funny, funny inaugural.”

Johnston said that this is the sixth inaugural for which he has provided boxwoods. The Bushes haven’t made any special requests, but security is very tight. Wheeler and Johnston took a crew down this past Tuesday and spent most of the day unloading and setting up the bushes.

“Those bushes were smelled, X-rayed, wanded and put on a conveyor to be checked,” Wheeler said. They also had to send the license plates of the rental trucks and submit the social security numbers of everybody who was working on the project beforehand.

“One year they found a pair of side cutters in one of the bushes,” Johnston said. It must have been left there by the grower. They did have a close call this year, and Wheeler recounts how they exited the inaugural area seconds before it was closed down to deal with the intruder, "As we were leaving the area in front of the reviewing stand in our two trucks — when you exit the area these remote controlled pylons lower into the ground and raise as a vehicle passes, preventing a vehicle from going forward or backward until the remote control is pressed — so as we get through the last of the pylons the cops were approaching the red van with guy who was going to blow up himself and everyone around him. So we were saved from a truly bad experience by being in the right place at the right time. The people who were stuck in there did not get out until after midnight."

JOHNSTON SAID he first made the connection with the people who build the stands. Prior to that, companies had been trying to use things like chrysanthemums. That didn’t work very well, considering that it is usually very cold during the inauguration.

“After the first year, they let me take over and deal with it from there on out.”

Johnston and Wheeler are now co-owners of Holly, Woods & Vines, located on Richmond Highway. Johnston said that they bring about 450 boxwoods, for which they are paid a rental fee. After the inaugural, they bring the boxwoods back, and sell them — as inaugural bushes. While some customers know that they are paying a premium because of the association with the inaugural, but just as many others probably don’t.

“Some people may have Reagan bushes and don’t even know it,” Johnston said.

This year, Johnston plans to sell them on eBay.