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From shrubs to towering controversy: Plan to remove azaleas draws objections

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By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 2010; 7:12 PM

Washingtonians can be a compliant lot. You can move our football team to the suburbs, soak it to downtown parking meter users and turn Capitol Hill into an ultra-secure, Baghdad-style green zone. Just don't mess with our azaleas.

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A plan to cut down thousands of mature shrubs at the National Arboretum has ignited a blogosphere firestorm of dismay and rage from azalea lovers who flock to the federally owned botanical garden each spring.

The reaction has given Ramon Jordan, the arboretum's interim director, pause, though plans are still in the works to take out as many as 10,000 mature azaleas if Jordan cannot replace the loss of an annual grant.

"I have 97 e-mails I just replied to personally," Jordan said. "The outpouring is awesome."

He said he will reevaluate his decision and try to find temporary funding to delay the uprooting. "The bottom line is, we need sustained funding," he said.

The 65-year-old azaleas transform a wooded hill at the arboretum in Northeast Washington in April and May, helping draw more than 100,000 visitors during six peak weekends. Managers have proposed removing about 20 percent of the collection, clustered in the popular hillside display on Mount Hamilton. Elsewhere in the 446-acre arboretum, displays of boxwoods, perennials and daffodils are to be removed or broken up.

Administrators say they had to come up with the plans after they learned they will be losing an annual $110,000 private grant that funds two of the 20 gardeners who tend 15 plant collections and gardens.

Although the azaleas aren't scheduled to be chopped down until late next year, rumors of the culling went viral just before Thanksgiving. Protesters created a Web site, savetheazaleas.org, and encouraged supporters to lobby members of Congress and the secretary of agriculture.

The arboretum is a public botanical garden and a scientific research facility of the Agricultural Research Service.

"People are up in arms," said Judy Tiger, a longtime activist for green spaces in the District.

"They're making a terrible decision, and an irrevocable one," said Don Hyatt, an azalea grower and breeder in McLean.

Jordan said that without replacement funding, the mature azaleas will be removed next fall and the 500 boxwood plants the following winter. The grant, which comes from a private trust, is set to end in February 2012, officials said.

The hillside to be cleared was developed decades ago by an Agriculture Department hybridizer named Ben Morrison. He planted seven acres of Mount Hamilton with several thousand of his selections, grouping them by color.

Morrison had worked methodically to create large-flowered azaleas that were hardy and suitable for the mid-Atlantic states. His Glenn Dale hybrids now define the Washington azalea, the large evergreen shrubs that are smothered in blooms in the spring.

Arboretum scientists continue to develop new garden plants and over the years have assembled important collections of crape myrtles, cherry trees, lilacs, hollies and magnolias. Before deciding which collections to reduce, Jordan said, the arboretum considered such factors as their scientific and educational value. As beautiful as the targeted azaleas are, they require a lot of maintenance. Many also lack the records on parentage that are key to their scientific value for breeders.

The Glenn Dale azaleas "are low on this scale of scientific merit but high for aesthetic and visitor experience," Jordan said, "and that's part of our chagrin, but we have to manage resources well."

The arboretum has been struggling financially for years. In 2008, its then-director was preparing plans to lay off a quarter of its 76-member staff and close the institution on weekends. Congress restored a planned $2 million cut. The architecturally significant but dilapidated administration building is undergoing a 14-month, $9 million restoration funded by federal stimulus money, but a $60 million master plan of capital improvements is on hold.

Jordan said that after the Glenn Dale azaleas are removed, "if you have never been to the arboretum, you would not know what you've missed."

Hyatt has been to Mount Hamilton, and he is among those who think the Glenn Dale azaleas will be missed a great deal. "It's on a par with the cherry blossoms, and to me it's more phenomenal because it lasts longer."

Hyatt said that some of the plants' lineage can be identified and that technology might eventually permit the genetic tagging of all of them. Even if their exact parentage cannot be determined, they are time-tested plants of great value to future breeders, he said: "They have proven to be very adaptable plants, the kind you want to build on for the next generation. That repository is unlike anything anywhere else in the world that I'm aware of."

Jeanne Connelly, chairman of the Friends of the National Arboretum, said the group "understands that these are difficult economic times and public entities have to tighten their belts. However, destroying these two national collections" - the azaleas and the boxwoods - "would be a terrible loss for the public." Connelly has asked Jordan to suspend the decision, to allow parties to try to find other sources of money.

The boxwood collection features about 500 plants representing about 170 species and varieties. It is the most complete collection in the United States, said Edward Goode, president of the American Boxwood Society.

"The mission of the arboretum doesn't say anything about the elimination of the collections - it's diametrically opposed to that," Goode said. He said he was told that the mature boxwoods "basically are going to be destroyed, they're going to take cuttings, and the area will be turned back into a meadow. It's absurd."


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