Sunday, November 21, 2010

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 or at


Part 2 is now up at:


  1. Anonymous4:53 PM

    I find this hard to believe. Are there any public documents on the decision? Will there be hearings? This is outrageous.

  2. Anonymous5:14 PM

    The craziest part of Mr. Aker's logic is his first argument that, because the azaleas have too many visitors, they must go. Wouldn't the National Arboretum (and its mission) be better served by working on managing the visitors (traffic management, limits on number of cars that may enter at the gate, etc.)and enjoying the extra attention to a place that oftentimes has too few visitors?

  3. Sounds like Mr. Aker needs to get the axe!

  4. Anonymous7:40 PM

    don't they WANT more visitors? esp. with recent fed govt and white house initiatives to get people to spend more time outside, esp. children.

  5. Diana Vidutis8:27 PM

    B.Y. Morrison of Takoma Park, MD (he lived on Piney Branch Road) dealt with a similar problem in WWII when his azalea breeding projects had to be ripped out to make way for plants that would produce quinine for our troops. He distributed many of the plants to neighbors in Takoma Park and hence, TP became known as Azalea City. No issue of similar gravitas appears here. It seems that Scott Aker (doesn't he write gardening articles for the Washington Post? We should protest) has no appreciation for local azalea history and no understanding of the import of this stand to the spread of azalas throughout the US (Morrison bred them to grow well in this climate). Azalea City must lodge a formal complaint!

  6. Well done, Mr. Aker-- kudos to you sir. Only a bureaucratic of staggering narrow vision could look at a powerful draw to your institution and-- seeing challenges to your control instead of a means to fundraise, educate, and re-allocate federal funding-- decide to destroy it.

  7. Anonymous7:15 AM

    One of the highlights of my youth was driving by the Azalea hillside in a car and seeing this stunning display of man working with nature. As an adult, for the last several years, I have been able to walk right up to them. This is due to the hard work of the Arboretum staff in creating walking paths. To see this precious resource cut to the ground to satisfy the aspirations of a misguided bureaucrat is indeed disturbing.

  8. I hope you are all expressing your outrage to the officials mentioned as well as just on this blog!

  9. Mr. Walker9:51 AM

    This sounds like a proposal intended to shock people and mobilize support for more funding. Either that, or Mr. Aker is insane. I don’t doubt that funding is a problem. The discussion should begin with an analysis of how money is currently spent. I expect that private funding will be forthcoming, but donors need to know that the Arboreum is operated efficiently.

  10. Craziness! Makes you wonder if anyone uses logic anymore. Sigh.

    On a brighter note, we have Azalea 'Ben Morrison' at our house. We bought them at a local nursery because we thought they have such an intriguing bi-color flower. Through this article, I learned why they are named 'Ben Morrison'. Thanks for sharing the information.

  11. Hope that people take to their senses ! We need the pure clean nature and the .. Yes .. Hope that they will grow.

    Jonny from the Arctic regions of Norway

  12. Stop being so sweet Eva :oP

  13. This is stunning - how could you quantify the amount of joy and delight those azaleas have brought to generations of washingtonians and visitors? Let's make a collective constructive cry and turn this around. I've written to the three officials mentioned here. But let's do more. Does anyone know who may be our most likely champions among local officials, members of Congress, journalists? If there's really a financial rationale, I can't believe lovers of all that beauty wouldn't donate to save it.

  14. Outrageous! Insane! Inexcusable! And immeasurably sad...

  15. holy guacamole! The logic as presented seems non sensical.

  16. Anonymous5:03 PM

    Exceptionally shortsighted, the National Arboretum is one of the most beautiful places in the city, because it is the home of azaleas in America. A period of public discourse is needed. All concerned should have an opportunity for public comment.

  17. Anonymous9:13 PM

    What everyone above has said. This is a truly breathtakingly stupid, insane, ridiculous, shortsighted and ill conceived decision.

  18. Wake up, people, government has become too big and expensive and voters are unhappy with needless spending. They have just sent more than 60 new members of Congress to cut waste and funding of projects which are not necessary. So what better place to start than getting rid of excess plants which cost thousands of taxpayer dollars to support. At least Mr Akers has the courage to make cuts, literally. Stop complaining. The voters have spoken.

  19. Anonymous9:05 AM

    Out of Time is also out of touch with reality. Are you really saying destroy something that has taken 60 years to develop to save a few pennies. Lets close all the memorials and the Smithsonian while we are at it. Do you not realize that attractions draw visitors and visitors spend money stimulating the economy. Could you be any more short sighted?

  20. Are you really saying destroy something that has taken 60 years to develop to save a few pennies. Lets close all the memorials and the Smithsonian while we are at it.

    Do you seriously think that Teabaggers like "out of time" would have a problem with that? These are the kind of folks who would gladly tear their living-room couch to shreds in the hopes they might find some loose change down in the cushions.

    After all, we've got deficits brought on by two disastrous and avoidable wars, and massive tax-cuts for the top 1% of earners in the country. So let's make up the shortfall by turning the US into a third-world crap-hole.

    Incredibly short-sighted and petty.

  21. Anonymous9:32 AM

    His logic could be applied elsewhere with great success! For example the Louvre could solve a lot of their capacity issues by burning the Mona Lisa.

  22. @out of time

    This issue has nothing to do with voters, so please save the Tea Party blather for 2012. If you actually READ THE ARTICLE, a loss of PRIVATE funding is the issue.

    According to the Arboretum's website, their Mission is "To serve the public need for scientific research, education, and gardens that conserve and showcase plants to enhance the environment".

    If Mr. Akers is either unable or unwilling to fulfill this mission, he should be replaced.

  23. Anonymous12:12 PM

    What poor reasoning. Should The National Zoo euthanize the pandas when the crowds get too big?

  24. Anonymous12:50 PM

    Sounds similar to the NPS closing the Washington Monument elevator every time funding in threatened. All smoke and no fire. At least one hopes...

  25. Anonymous3:47 PM

    Lock the gates and fire the staff if you must, but leave the plants. Perhaps they want to make room for condos and a kick back from developers. ;)

  26. Patrick4:09 PM

    After reading Mr. Akers for many years in WaPo, I got the impression he was sane, but this proposal (to remove a significant azalea collection) leads me to believe otherwise.
    I would suggest, first, the removal of Mr. Akers before any important plant or tree collection.

  27. Anonymous5:28 PM

    The Arboretum should charge for entry... a modest amount, but something. That would cut down on visitors and get them some much needed revenue. Feel like I heard that Smithsonian is thinking about it too.

  28. Anonymous7:40 PM

    If we all care that much then we need to not just request government dollars, though they need to be there, but also put our own dollars down. What I am frustrated with the Arboreteum is that they have such an anemic effort at fundraising. They act like it is just better to roll over and die or at least do it to the plants.

  29. Anonymous8:01 PM

    This just doesn't ring true. Where are the actual quotes and/or copy of press release/meeting minutes?

  30. Anonymous10:32 PM

    The arboretum is one of washington most underrated treasures. I hope this uproar reminds the staff that they are stewards of a national resource.

  31. Anonymous8:12 AM

    This is tragic. I am a frequent visitor to the Nt'l Arboretum and always treasure my visits during the azalea blooming season.
    Besides contacting the 3 officials mentioned in the post, how about also contacting the director of the USNA:
    Ramon Jordan
    US National Arboretum (Washington, D.C.)
    Phone: (202) 245-4539
    Fax: (202) 245-4574
    Room 100
    3501 NEW YORK AVE, NE.
    WASHINGTON, DC, 20002-1958

  32. Could someone please post the emails from USDA on this? It would be alot easier to generate awareness with the original documentation. If no one has a web site then send it to me and I'll post. Jim (301-464-5423)

  33. Anonymous11:21 AM

    A petition has been started at

    On November 8, 2010, Aaron Cook, the President of the Azalea Society of America, learned that the Arboretum plans to cut down the mature azalea display on Mount Hamilton in the summer of 2011. Their stumps will be painted with herbicide.

    Read more at:

    Express your outrage by contacting the USDA, the Forest Service and the Arboretum.

    USDA on Facebook:

    USDA on Twitter:

    Dr. Ramon Jordan
    Interim Director
    U.S. National Arboretum
    Phone: 202-245-4539 Fax: 202-245-4574

    Dr. Judith St. John
    Deputy Administrator
    National Program Staff
    Phone: 301-504-6252 Fax: 301-504-4663

    Dr. Joseph Spence
    Beltsville Area Director
    Phone: 301-504-6078 Fax: 301-504-5863

  34. my friend Frederick Nunley had send me the link to this blog, sad as he was for the plan to remove the rhodo's and azaleas,what a sad and awefull story that is, you should think that the rulers in Washinting would be proud of this piece of nature and the value it has for the residents,
    sadly some seems to think different and the plants don't longer are on the easy it is to remove them then....
    simpleminded that is...
    i hope this article get;'s a lot of attention.....also nationwide....and makes them think about before all is gone...
    so my pen/art friend can continue send me beautyfull photo's from the N.A. when he's been there..
    good luck from Cor windhouwer, Rotterdam, the Netherlands on keep the rhodo's&azaleas

  35. Pt 2 is now up at:

  36. Anonymous6:49 AM

    The long-term solution to the Arboretum's funding woes is to institute user fees, like the National Parks.

  37. Save the Azaleas at the U.S. National Arboretum
    nice posts, thanks for the information .. please visit my back

  38. Your best hope may be to look into erosion control regulations in your area and find out if "public" hearings were held...if so were they properly noticed? And object, object, object!! Letters to the editor, op ed pieces, emails and phone calls to elected officials, etc.

  39. Anonymous7:37 PM

    If this is indeed factual, it is absolutely abominable. I agree that a small user fee is not unreasonable,but to destroy all those plants that connect people to nature because too many of them come to see it!! Puhleez! Since some of my taxpayer dollars go to the arboretum, I vote for the azaleas and, perhaps, for someone with some imagination to oversee them.

  40. Roger Lyle9:33 PM

    This is outrageous! More Americans need to know about the National Arboretum. This is a national treasure, that we paid for. The major media attention comes from the brilliance of the Azalea collection in bloom every spring. One woman, Barbara Bullock is the only paid employee in this collection. She relies on volunteer help, and has worked tirelessly for 20 years to get it in the award winning shape it is in now.

    Thousands of people take pride in our National Arboretum's spectacular collections. Please save the Azalea Collection! Peace.

  41. made video satire of this situation:

  42. Anonymous1:39 PM

    I'm a Washington DC native, and a landscape architect. I spent many hours at the Arboretum when I lived back East. I had many classes there and I loved to go there just for pure pleasure. If I had to limit my thoughts on this proposal to one word it would be - silly. Although the azaleas don't exactly fulfill the Arboreteum's committment to pedigree and scientific accuracy the azaleas have attained a place in Washington's (and America's) heart. People love the azaleas, and it is a time honored tradition for many people to visit to them in bloom. Ultimately, seeing the azaleas prompts many people to grow azaleas on their own. So not only is this depriving people of an innocent, inexpensive family oriented activity, it will be have a negative economic result for the nurseries in the area. I worked at several nurseries and many people cited the Arboreteum's collection as inspiration for their yards. It will also probably lessen people's overall interest in funding the Arboreteum. Furthermore, it is a tremendous insult to the Curator, Ms. Barbara Bullock, and many nameless volunteers who have devoted tremendous energy to restoring this area. At the very minimum, if this silly idea must be carried out, please offer the option for the entire collection of plants to be donated to a qualified recipient. Azaleas are very shallow rooted, with roots almost like a pancake, and they transplant very well. In addition, they are fairly lightweight so don't require huge amounts of equipment. Surely, there is a group or even several groups that would be thrilled to benefit from this situation. One other comment. Personally, I dislike Azaleas when they are mixed up willy nilly in people's yards,but at the Arboreteum the Azaleas are transformed into a spectacle of beauty of a grand scale. Please find a compromise to this situation.

  43. Elizabeth Sroka9:51 PM

    This is so sad! I first visited these azaleas as a 9th grader in 1969 and they made a lasting impression on me. I have made sure my children have visited and I took my mother to see them this past spring! What a huge loss this will be! So what if it is crowded and who cares if they are not "documented". Save the Azaleas!

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