Sunflowers planted by Henry Docter, a.k.a. “the Phantom Planter,” are shown at the Dupont Circle Metro station in 2018. (Henry Docter)
Columnist

On a Tuesday, Henry Docter stood at the Dupont Circle Metro station and counted the blooming sunflowers. A half dozen had opened their petals, and more than 100 were growing.

Two days later, he learned that every single one was gone.

Docter said he felt numb. Then, he felt the tears come.

Long known as “the Phantom Planter” for his unauthorized efforts to beautify the nation’s capital one public patch of dirt at a time, Docter had spent his own money and sweat planting and tending to the sunflowers at the Metro stop. His hope was that they would grow into the striking scene that had greeted commuters the year before.

Photos of that display show the flowers towering along an incline on both sides of the escalators and goldfinches gathering in them. On social media, people described the botanical exhibit as a bright spot in an otherwise dreaded commute.

“I know I complain about #wmata all the time, but these sunflowers welcoming me home every night at the Dupont station have really made a difference! #flowersmakemehappy,” one person wrote.

“To whomever planted sunflowers along the escalators at the Dupont Metro station: bless you,” another wrote.

And another: “the dupont metro sunflowers make me so happy.”

But this year there will be no sunflowers, and Docter wants you to know that it is not because he didn’t try.

There will be no sunflowers, he said, because Metro is “shortsighted.”

“This shows Metro has no concern for the experience of its riders,” Docter said. “It gives you a window into what kind of organization it is and what it values and how it deals with beauty, unbridled beauty.”

After the sunflower massacre, Docter said he started asking around and learned that a Metro employee had removed the plants, even as people pleaded, “Please don’t kill the sunflowers.”

I asked the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority about the incident, and an official said that Metro had not planted flowers at that location because “doing so would attract rodents and provide them a place to nest.” Maintenance staffers, the official said, “would remove anything that could attract rodents or encourage them to nest at the entrance.”

Metro also has plans to cover the station’s entrance with a permanent glass-and-steel canopy that will protect the escalators from rain and snow. As part of that project, which is expected to be completed next year, Metro will replace the planters there with an art installation.

No more planters means no more plants there — sunflowers or others.

Metro, of course, has a right to decide how to maintain its stations, and in the well of its worries, it’s understandable that flowers fall low. But since this was the last year that anything could even be planted at the Dupont Circle station, the move to destroy what was already blooming there raises basic questions: Was it really necessary? Did Metro consider what commuters might want? Or did officials there simply, by default, choose bureaucracy over beauty?

Doctor said this year he has planted near Washington National Cathedral, along Wisconsin Avenue and in front of Sidwell Friends and Georgetown Day schools — and no one has ripped out living plants because of rodent worries.

“I think this is a case where 99 percent of the people see the world as it is and appreciate the attempt to balance things out a bit with flowers,” Docter said.


Docter in 2013. (Marlon Correa/The Washington Post)

This is, of course, not Docter’s first clash with Metro. It has destroyed things he has planted before. In 2013, Metro workers yanked out 1,000 flowers at the same Metro station after threatening to arrest, fine and imprison Docter if he tended to them. After that, he went public with his identity and wrote an essay for The Washington Post under the headline, “Why I became the Phantom Planter.”

“For 35 years, I’ve been listening to a voice that tells me to transform a little bit of the earth one flower seed at a time,” he wrote in that piece. “So the first reason I plant is easy to understand: I’m compelled to create beauty where it’s missing.”

In 2013, Docter responded to Metro’s move in a bold way, one he described in his essay as an “artistic overreaction.” He used a clothesline to suspend a huge box featuring quotes from Metro officials and the public over the escalator at the station.

Docter said he has since gotten better at “grieving my losses.” He said he let the tears fall that day he learned the sunflowers were gone, and in the days since, he has thought hard about how to move forward.

His answer: Plant more.

He spent this past weekend cleaning and clearing the ground before planting four new public gardens. He has also launched a GoFundMe page. On it, he asks the public to suggest neglected spots in the city that could use flowers.

In other words, he is hoping you will do what Metro wasn’t willing to: Help him fill the city with sunflowers and more.