Cynthia Terrell and I get the obvious out of the way. We acknowledge that there are so many higher-stakes things we could talk about. Political things. Gender inequality things. Social justice things.
She has strong opinions when it comes to all those subjects.
But she also has strong opinions about something else; something that she knows many people in the Washington area take pride in, cherish even, and won’t want to hear her disparage. So it is with some bravery that she confesses this to me:
She’s not a fan of azaleas.
That’s right, azaleas, the flowering shrubs that are in full bloom across the region right now and that will draw excited crowds to the National Arboretum this weekend.
Thousands of picture-snapping people go there every spring to see the Azalea Collection, which my colleague Steve Hendrix once described in a story as a “ground-level fireworks display.” This season, even more visitors than usual are expected and for the first time in years, people will be able to see an area of the collection that was blocked off to protect an eagle’s nest, said Tom McGuire, the executive director of the Friends of the National Arboretum. (The unfortunate, or fortunate if you favor flowers over birds, reason the area is now open is that the feathered couple did not produce any eggs this year).
People outside of the nation’s capital may know it for its cherry blossoms. But those who live in and around the region, who spend more than a passing trip here, know what comes after those blossoms have had their days.
These weeks in Washington belong to the azalea.
Their blooms are blanketing blocks right now — apparently to the joy of some and the head-shaking of others.
Before this week, I had no idea how strongly people felt about azaleas. Then one conversation led to another and then to another, and soon I was learning about the history of the city’s greenery and how in D.C., even a plant can cause divide.
“Am I the only one who hates azaleas?” someone posted on a popular D.C. parenting forum a few years ago.
“Yes,” came one response.
“Just you,” came another.
Then finally a few nods of support:
“Not alone. I despise them. When not in bloom, they are a shapeless, ugly mess.”
“Nope. Not just you, unless you’re me. Too brazen color, and there’s always one section or plant that’s a bit off in color.”
These conversations may seem trivial. But we spend so much time in this region talking about the ugliness around us — racism, political corruption, sex abuse — that it seems, even if it comes in the form of a spirited debate, it is good anytime we pause to discuss the beautification of our neighborhoods.
Recently, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) asked her 4 million Twitter followers what she should plant in her community garden plot, and as my colleague Adrian Higgins noted, she instantly drew thousands of responses.
Higgins, who is The Washington Post’s gardening columnist, also once took a stance on azaleas, under a headline that called it “Washington’s signature shrub” and asked if it was time to “drop it.”
He wrote: “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.”
Terrell, an avid gardener, doesn’t just live in the Washington area. She lives in Azalea City, also known as Takoma Park, Md. She lives in a place that loves the shrub so much that the Takoma Foundation recognizes outstanding residents with “Azalea Awards.”
“These are all going to seem very petty given the enormity of the problems in the world,” Terrell tells me, before listing the reasons she dislikes azaleas.
On that list: they are overused, they are often bought before they are blooming so there is no aesthetic thought given to what colors are placed together, people don’t always know how to care for them and the ones found most commonly in the area are not native and don’t give off much scent.
As we talk about her garden, she describes carefully chosen plants. She also admits she doesn’t dislike all azaleas.
Among her blueberry bushes and pomegranate trees, she has a few cherished azalea plants. One is the Mount Saint Helens variety, which she says, is “gorgeous and has a scent.”
She also suggests that I talk to the Mayor of Azalea City, Kate Stewart, for a different perspective of the plant.
Stewart says when she first saw the bushes in front of the house she bought in Takoma Park, she was taken back to her childhood in Brooklyn.
“When I was little, the house I lived in was just filled with azaleas,” she says.
She is on the side of those who love the blooms this time of year. She describes it as part of the “progression of beauty we get to witness every spring in this area.”
“We start with the cherry blossoms and then the magnolias and then we get our dogwoods and our azaleas,” she says. “I feel like this slow blanket of color comes over us and one just leads into the next.”
She and I discuss how there are so many pressing issues right now in this region that it feels silly — and yet necessary — to notice the Washington that isn’t politics or social issues.
“Especially the times we’re living in right now,” she says, “it’s really hard to take those moments and appreciate the beauty around us.”