green scene

Trims at National Arboretum could mar the cultural landscape

The azalea collection is one site being scrutinized for removal.
The azalea collection is one site being scrutinized for removal. (Sandra Leavitt Lerner For The Washington Post)
By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, December 11, 2010

What if you had 15 major plant collections on your property but only had enough money to maintain 12 of them? Simple arithmetic, of course, dictates that you subtract three.

But the staff of the U.S. National Arboretum faces a serious complication: Which plant collections should be subtracted, considering that Arboretum visitors love these gardens equally?

One of the sites being scrutinized for removal is the Glenn Dale azalea collection, developed and planted in 1946-47 by Benjamin Y. Morrison, the first director of the Arboretum. Morrison spent more than 25 years developing these strains, which are among the oldest and grandest evergreen azalea hybrids in the United States. Barbara Bullock, current curator of the collection, and a handful of volunteers have taken care of them for many years.

These plants have grown quite large in the past 60 to 65 years. The argument for removal is that for this particular hillside, Mount Hamilton, the Arboretum does not have documentation for the Glenn Dale's lineage. Therefore, for hybridizing purposes, there is no certainty of the plants' original pedigree.

The reasoning put forth by Arboretum Interim Director Ramon Jordan and Gardens Unit Supervisor Scott M. Aker is sound. This is an agricultural research facility and accuracy in documentation is a crucial part of its function.

Maintaining historical data and specimens is important, but horticulture is not just about maintaining a gene pool. Along with tissue culture and germ plasm research, I value the beauty of the flora and appreciate the work on display at the Arboretum. How important is the pedigree if the plants were bred for ornamental value, beautiful form, color, winter hardiness and disease resistance? I believe we should appreciate these azaleas for their special characteristics. They have remained healthy and have stood the test of time.

The boxwood collection is also marked for removal. The Egyptians began to grow boxwood about 5,000 years ago. The plant is valued for its permanence in the landscape and admired for its form, with growth habits that can look like clouds or grow with a pyramidal habit. Some boxwood foliage turns russet red in winter. It's an excellent edging and screening plant, is very deer resistant, and the Middle Atlantic region offers good growing conditions for it.

The Arboretum's boxwoods make up one of the most complete collections in the world. There are approximately 150 different species and cultivars planted in a verdant corner of the Arboretum. These are good reasons for retaining the collection for the future. Saving them is a matter of advocates jumping on board and offering physical and financial help to support the deficit in federal dollars.

The daffodil and accompanying perennial collections are also in danger of being eliminated because of the budget shortfall.

Jordan indicated that he has somewhat slowed the process of deleting plant collections and will evaluate the public's and government's ability to continue to support these collections. He is also considering alternatives to keep the collections. The first challenge is how to generate more income.

Perhaps reinstating a board of directors made up of professionals to study the situation and make suggestions on ways to make the facility more lucrative is one answer, as suggested by award-winning rhododendron expert Donald W. Hyatt.

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