Are the Azaleas Doomed?

National Arboretum may remove plants

U.S. National Arboretum Garden Unit Leader Scott Aker recently announced that the arboretum would be chopping down its azaleas and painting the remaining stumps with herbicide. According to Don Hyatt at the Washington Gardener blog, the azaleas “are among the oldest and most spectacular specimens” in the nation, and “occupy perhaps 3 to 6 acres of the 446-acre Arboretum.”

They have been restored over the past 20 years by a group of committed volunteers.

The azaleas were developed by the arboretum’s first director, producing “first large flowered azaleas hardy in the Mid-Atlantic region.” They are beautiful and healthy and beloved by many. So what’s the problem?

According to Hyatt, Aker said the loss of funding for two gardener positions on staff made the decision necessary. But Hyatt responds that the funding, from a private donor, does not impact the azalea collection but another part of the arboretum. Hyatt also rejects Aker’s alleged argument that the arboretum is lacking proper documentation on the azaleas, suggesting it’s an insult to the volunteers who spent years on documenting them to say so.

But most puzzling is Aker’s alleged argument that the azaleas should be razed precisely because people like them.

“I cannot dispute the beauty of the display and its value as an attraction for our visitors,” Aker was reported to have said. “Again in part to diminishing resources, we are now unable to accommodate the crowds of visitors in April and May when the azaleas are in bloom.”

But the arboretum has several large parking lots. I visit there regularly with my sons during peak months, and I am always able to find a spot. Hyatt says the Potomac Valley Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society “has held its flower show at the Arboretum during peak azalea time for nearly 40 years” and has had no difficulties -- even this year “when the show coincided with the busy Friends of the National Arboretum plant sale.”

The arboretum also got a $9 million cash injection under the 2009 stimulus.

Aker is, of course, the expert here, and I’m sure he has not made this decision lightly. But a facility dedicated to protecting, cultivating, and celebrating nature should not be destroying it without considerable debate -- and time for public input.

Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC

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