Save the Azaleas at the U.S. National Arboretum
by Don Hyatt
On November 8, 2010, Aaron Cook, the President of the Azalea Society of America, learned that the U.S. National Arboretum in NE Washington, DC, plans to remove the mature azalea display on Mount Hamilton. The Garden Unit Leader at the National Arboretum, Mr. Scott Aker, announced that the azaleas will be cut down in the summer of 2011 and their stumps painted with herbicide. Many of us are upset by this decision.
The azaleas on Mt. Hamilton create one of the prime floral attractions in our Nation’s Capital. The lovely mature azaleas, many of which are over 60 years old, occupy perhaps 3 to 6 acres of the 446-acre Arboretum. There is no space issue. The azaleas are not overgrown or in decline. Working with many volunteers during the past 20 years, Ms. Barbara Bullock, the Azalea Curator, has restored the beauty and health of the collection after years of neglect. The azaleas are among the oldest and most spectacular specimens in the U.S. They are a National Treasure.
Historically, these azaleas are of particular importance to the U.S. National Arboretum since they were developed by its first Director, Benjamin Y. Morrison. They represent the top 2 to 3% of the 50,000 to 75,000 seedlings he raised when developing the famous Glenn Dale Azaleas. Morrison’s colossal breeding project has had no equal, and it produced the first large flowered azaleas hardy in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Below are the three primary reasons Mr. Aker has given via email inquiries regarding the decision to destroy the azalea collection. Following Mr. Aker’s statements are some facts that seem to contradict his reasoning.
1) The azaleas attract too many visitors, and that creates problems
Aker: “I cannot dispute the beauty of the display and its value as an attraction for our visitors. Currently, again in part to diminishing resources, we are now unable to accommodate the crowds of visitors in April and May when the azaleas are in bloom. We have inadequate parking and restroom facilities.”
Fact: The Arboretum has several large parking areas, and for years has provided a shuttle service to get around to the various attractions. The Potomac Valley Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society has held its flower show at the Arboretum during peak azalea time for nearly 40 years. Its members have not observed any difficulties, even in 2010 when the show coincided with the busy Friends of the National Arboretum plant sale.
Fact: The Arboretum received $9 million in Federal stimulus funds as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. That money has been put toward the renovation of the Administration building and includes adding more public restrooms. That facility is closed now but should reopen within the next 18 months.
2) Because the Asian Valley Exhibit lost private funding, the Arboretum will remove several other collections
Aker: “Recently, we learned that a donor that has supported two gardener positions on our staff will no longer be providing that support, and the loss of this staff has resulted in the need to deaccession collections. We will be deaccessioning our National Boxwood Collection and the co-located Perennial Collections as well as the Glenn Dale Hillside portion of the Azalea Collection.”
Fact: Neither of the privately funded positions involved the Azaleas, Boxwoods, or Perennials. There is no reason to eliminate federally funded positions in order to replace those private gardeners. Mr. Aker makes the staffing decisions, and Ms. Bullock continues to be the only person assigned to the 20-acre azalea collection. The physical removal those large azaleas will incur additional expenses. Denuding the hillside will increase the risk of erosion.
3) The azaleas are not well documented
Aker: “We do not have documentation for any of the plants on the Glenn Dale Hillside. Although Morrison's breeding records do exist, no labels have been found attached to any plant so that we can know its provenance beyond conjecture.”
Fact: Ms. Bullock and volunteers have been making excellent progress on plant identification. Many of the original Glenn Dale varieties have been positively identified on the hillside. They have used plant records, Morrison’s notes, registration data, and comparisons with known forms. Even unnamed plants whose parentage may never be identified still have merit and can be introduced. The striking bicolor azalea ‘Ben Morrison’ is one of those unknown plants. It was named by another Arboretum Director, the late Dr. John Creech, to honor the original hybridizer.
An irrevocable decision such as cutting down the Glenn Dale Azaleas would not likely have been made if the Arboretum had considered its ramifications. Originally, the Arboretum had an Advisory Board that provided expert advice to its leadership, but that group was dissolved in 1994. You can still advise USDA officials of your concerns:
1. Dr. Judith St. John, Deputy Administrator, National Program Staff, 5601 Sunnyside Ave., Beltsville, MD 20705 Phone: 301-504-6252 Fax: 301-504-4663
2. Dr. Joseph Spence, Beltsville Area Director, 10300 Baltimore Blvd. Bldg. 003, BARC-West, Room 223, Beltsville, MD 20702 Phone: 301-504-6078 Fax: 301-504-5863
3. Dr. Ramon Jordan, Interim Director, U.S. National Arboretum, 3501 New York Avenue NE, Washington, DC 20002 Phone: 202-245-4539 Fax: 202-245-4574
Guest Blogger Don Hyatt is a retired teacher and avid gardener. Don is recognized as a national authority on azaleas and rhododendrons and has served on the national boards of both the Azalea Society of America (ASA) and the American Rhododendron Society (ARS). He can be contacted at Don@donaldhyatt.com or at http://www.donaldhyatt.com/about.html.
Part 2 is now up at: http://washingtongardener.blogspot.com/2010/11/part-2-of-save-usna-azaleas-and.html