Arboretum reverses decision to destroy azalea display after public backlash

February 15, 2011

Officials at the National Arboretum have halted a plan to destroy its most popular floral attraction - a display of 10,000 mature azalea shrubs - as its new director seeks to improve the long-term picture of the financially strapped federal institution.

The decision to rip out the 65-year-old Glenn Dale azalea display in the botanical garden in Northeast Washington spurred a public outcry and a campaign to save the azaleas. It also prompted an anonymous donor to pledge a $1 million endowment to be used toward preserving the azaleas and the arboretum's world-class boxwood collection, which was also targeted for removal.

"This generous donation, offered in the Arboretum's hour of greatest need, reflects not only the donor's passion for this national treasure, but also confidence that the Arboretum leadership will make sound decisions in relation to the collections in the future," said Kathy Horan, executive director of the Friends of the National Arboretum, according to a news release.

The arboretum's director, Colien Hefferan, acknowledged "that the intensity and breadth of the concern did surprise everyone here." She said she wants to get horticultural experts together in the spring to devise long-term plans for the arboretum's 15 major plant collections and gardens and to work with the friends group to find more private funding.

The 446-acre arboretum is a public botanical garden and a research facility for the U.S. Agriculture Department's Agricultural Research Service.

In November, Hefferan's predecessor approved a plan to reduce the collections after the unexpected loss of a $110,000 grant, which helped pay for two gardeners. This spring would have been the last flowering of the azaleas on a hillside called Mount Hamilton. The spectacle helps to draw as many as 100,000 visitors over a peak six-week period in April and May.

The azaleas were targeted because the lineage of many has not been identified, diminishing their scientific value. Under the plan, collections of daffodils and perennials would also have been removed.

Jeanne Connelly, chairman of the friends group's board, said the plant collections have won a reprieve but their future still depends on finding maintenance funds. The anonymous donation will generate about $50,000 a year, she said. The group has started a fundraising campaign to match the donation and replace the lost grant.

The new $1 million gift is the largest single donation in the group's history. The anonymous donor has made the gift in honor of friends: prominent Washington lawyer Brendan V. Sullivan Jr. and his wife, Lila Sullivan.

The decision to suspend the removal of the displays "was linked to the outcry" rather than the donation, Connelly said. "There was this incredible backlash," she said. Organizers created a Web site, savetheazaleas.org, and lobbied members of Congress and the administration to come to the defense of the Glenn Dale azaleas.

"I think what this has shown is that the people in the Washington area really strongly support the National Arboretum," said one of the protesters, Don Hyatt, a retired teacher in McLean. "We are very thankful for the wide support this issue has brought forth."

Successive arboretum directors have struggled with chronic underfunding that has led to deferred maintenance of gardens and infrastructure. Its administration building is closed for a $9 million restoration funded by federal stimulus money.

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden."
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