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Is it time to dump azaleas as Washington's signature shrub?

One azalea can be beautiful -- even a pedestal display of the colorful flowers. But the stampede of blooms that comes every April? "It's nauseating," says landscape designer Jane MacLeish.

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By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, April 22, 2010

Landscape designer Jane MacLeish, a friend of mine, theorizes that Washington is awash in azaleas this week because the word "azaleas" is a lot easier to pronounce than, say, "Corylopsis pauciflora."

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Linguistically, "you can't sling that around as much as an azalea," MacLeish says. This is a pity, because the Corylopsis pauciflora is a superb alternative shrub to the azalea.

Now if the annual display was of just one azalea, on a pedestal perhaps, at the base of the Capitol, with timed tickets to view it, I'd be less cranky. But April brings tens of thousands of azaleas stampeding through the suburban Serengeti like a herd of wildebeest. Pink wildebeest. Cherry red wildebeest. Fuchsia wildebeest.

Can somebody put into words what I'm feeling? "It's nauseating," says MacLeish, imagining the riot of colors against salmon-red brick.

How did Washington become azalea land? This is the rough chronology: In the 19th century, someone figured that a house would look better if the basement foundation were covered by shrubbery. In the 20th century, the arrival of flashy evergreen azaleas from east Asia led to breeding programs, hundreds of new and hardier varieties, and a mass consumption of hybrids in the metropolis. The more discerning gardener bought them by variety name, others by different criteria: "Whad'ya think, the pink one or the red?"

Many of the azaleas now on display were planted decades ago by homeowners who have gone to their reward. Successive stewards were loath to replace them because the shrubs are big and old, and tough as old boots. It is conceivable that some people find them prettier than the Mona Lisa. Indeed, the azalea can be an attractive shrub, if placed carefully and economically in the right setting. And the individual flower, if you inspect it closely, is a thing of beauty, with a speckled throat and wirelike, upturned stamens.

But now that the azalea is in full sail, it becomes painfully evident just how reliant we have become on this one plant. Florally, it's a binge banquet for three weeks followed by a diet of gruelish greenery the rest of the year. There are worse foliage plants, as long as the azalea is spared attacks from lace bugs, which turn the leaves silver, or chlorosis, which yellows them. But even the sickly hang on to bloom madly.

Read more: azalea alternatives, more azalea alternatives and if you must .....


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