A National Arboretum plan to destroy azaleas cultivated and grown on a hill adjacent to the facility by the first director of the arboretum—and Takoma Park resident—Benjamin Morrison has angered those who love azaleas, and appreciate Morrison's research and work.
"Benjamin Y. Morrison contributed his life effort to creating an azalea legacy which is closely intertwined with the identity of Takoma Park," Jeff Trunzo, who is a member of the Takoma Junction Task Force, said in a written statement. Morrison, who lived on Piney Branch Road, is noted for suppling azaleas that he bred to Takoma Park dwellings, including the Thomas-Siegler House located at the corner of Tulip and Cedar Avenues. The National Arboretum's decision to destroy the azaleas on its property—possibly as soon as the summer of 2011—means "a substantial part of that (Morrison's) legacy is threatened with imminent destruction," Trunzo said.
From 1929 to 1954 Morrison—who lived from 1891 to 1966—did much of his work breeding azaleas, and was able to cross breed the large flowers and exciting colors of tender azaleas in the Indica group with the hardiness of more northerly species. Many of the more than 10,000 hybrid azaleas bred by Morrison are on the south slopes of Mount Hamilton in the area known as the Glenn Dale Hillside adjacent to the National Arboretum located at 3501 New York Avenue, NE, Washington, D.C.
However, those flowers are to be destroyed because of funding shortfalls and because the flowers are too popular, say Arboretum officials. The azaleas attract about 60,000 visitors per year, and that has created crowd control problems for the facility, the officials say. If the destruction of the flowers goes as currently planned, they will be cut down and the stumps treated with herbicide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
While the issues raised by the Arboretum are serious, they do not support the facility's decision to destroy the azalea display on Mount Hamilton, many of which are more than 60 years old and are akin to the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin in Washington, said Bill Miller, an azalea hobbyist with an interest in the Arboretum and the hybrid azaleas.
"These azaleas are a national treasure," said Miller, who added "The Arboretum's proposal is without merit. I doubt that this proposal would have seen the light of day had the Arboretum still had an advisory council consisting of representatives of national organizations interested in the work of the Arboretum, as called for in the Arboretum's authorizing legislation."
Among the reasons for destroying the flowers provided by the Arboretum which Miller disputes are the budget cuts, including the loss of support by a donor who provided funding for two gardener positions. Miller says that even with the recent freeze on federal pay, the situation involving the azaleas "does not come down to a choice between freezing employee pay and killing a bunch of plants." Further, the azalea collection at the National Arboretum has only ever received minimal support, and that "killing all those azaleas will not make up for the external support that was lost," he said.
The Arboretum also says the azaleas "are too popular" and it is unable to accommodate the crowds, that its parking and restroom facilities are "inadequate," Miller said. While the Arboretum is addressing the issues of having to deal with too many visitors, it is not addressing that the azaleas at Mount Hamilton are the product of the most ambitious azalea breeding program ever conducted by the federal government, he said. The azaleas "are not just Ben Morrison's castoffs, they represent a unique and irreplaceable germplasm resource of inestimable value," he added.
Miller urged those who disagree with the Arboretum's plan to take action, and they can start by visiting the website "Save The Azaleas at the U.S. National Arboretum" at http://savetheazaleas.org/, which has been created by Don Hyatt, recognized as a preeminent international authority on azaleas and rhododendrons. "Hyatt makes the case as well as it can be made," said Miller, who wants website visitors who "find the Arboretum's plan to destroy the azaleas lacking in merit," to contact the officials listed on the website and to make their opposition to the plan clear.