Tony Avent on the Destruction of Azaleas


In his latest newsletter, nurseryman Tony Avent, weighs in on a hot issue here in DC – the plan to destroy a bunch of azaleas at the National Arboretum.  Tony, owner of Plant Delights Nursery in North Carolina, is to my mind THE original garden ranter. 

There has recently been a big uproar in the nation’s capital over a plan by the US National Arboretum to remove a section of the Glen Dale azalea display. Azaleas lovers across the country have launched an email campaign to prevent the arboretum staff from removing the azaleas. 

While I like azaleas as much as anyone, I have a different take on the issue. The azaleas in question are breeding rejects from the USDA program which produced the Glen Dale Series. The breeding work of the late Arboretum director, Ben Morrison, produced the release of 454 azalea cultivars. Do we really need more azaleas from a program that has yielded 454 named varieties? When most breeding programs are concluded, the culls (rejects) are typically discarded. For some reason, these culls were never discarded, and over the years folks have become emotionally attached to these plants and consequently are now protesting the plan to discard them.

The land at the US National Arboretum is some of the most expensive land in the country and is not the place to maintain a collection of cull azaleas…no matter how nice they look for a couple of weeks in spring.

My suggestion to concerned members of the Rhododendron Society and the general public is that they raise private money and pay for the plants to be moved to a nearby park, which has more space and is in an area which is not focused on genetically important collections. Perhaps then, the USNA can replant a complete, labeled collection of the named Glen Dale hybrids along with other important hybrids that can serve as a real reference collection instead of the mass of unlabeled, unnamed plants that exist there now.  

Hat tip to Linda Keenan.


  1. The way this conflict was originally presented was that the National Arboretum no longer had the funds to maintain that area of their grounds, and that they planned on yanking out all the azaleas because they no longer could afford to care for them. The uproar was that if you don’t have the money to care for the space, why strip it bare, why not leave it as it is until you have the funding to develop it.

    The details that Tony adds to the mix give a completely different perspective.

  2. For me, the basic point is: why was the Arboretum trying to do this on the QT? Given what I’ve read so far, it sounds like the plan was to do the tearing out unbeknownst to everyone, and then apologize for it after the fact. That sort of approach always makes me suspicious that there’s an ulterior motive lurking around somewhere……

  3. Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Ga has an older collection of azaleas, and a newer collection.

    What I notice is the DISGUSTING LANDSCAPE DESIGN of the newer azaleas.

    Probably 3 decades apart, contrasting the landscape design styles is a thesis for someone.

    Note: I love Callaway Gardens & am referring to the Overlook area not the Azalea Bowl.

    Note: If you don’t know Tony Avent he owns Plant Delights & you have a fabulous discovery ahead.

    Garden & Be Well, XO TAra

  4. I’ll weigh in again, since my first post on this subject, that Tony here makes some good points. Also, I’ve talked with Scott Aker and he makes good points, too.
    But it’s soooo true that the Arb got caught trying to do this in secret. Of COURSE someone leaked the story!.

  5. Excellent balanced perspective from someone who did the research before writing.
    I’m not a huge azalea fan, but if there are so many out there, why not offer these culls to them for a nominal contribution to the Arb?

  6. A couple of points:

    My suggestion to Mr. Avent is that he become better acquainted with the facts. The correct spelling is Glenn Dale, and those azaleas on the southern face of Mount Hamilton are not “culls.” Anyone interested in learning about those azaleas should read the article published by West, Miller and Bullock: The Massed Glenn Dale Azaleas on Mt. Hamilton: A Valuable Collection at the National Arboretum, THE AZALEAN, Vol 14, No. 1, March 1992, pp. 8-13. I prefer Don Hyatt’s perspective — since it is informed.

    The azalea ‘Ben Morrison’ was not one of the 454 Glenn Dale hybrids. Would anyone put it in the cull category? Just because something didn’t get introduced doesn’t mean it is without value.

    The NA’s plan to trash the southern face of Mt. Hamilton makes as much sense as removing the cherry trees from the tidal basin.

  7. Tony makes a few good points. However, what is his answer for the planned USNA removal of their entire boxwood, daylily and daffodil collections along with the Glenn Dale azaleas? How about how this all was handled? This is a public institution exhibiting myopic decision-making followed by a classic case of total PR mishandling.

  8. What is so pressing that these need such urgent removal? That’s what I don’t understand. There’s no mention of using the land for any other critical purpose, which is what’s bemusing. I have no particular love for azaleas, but this wholesale destruction, apparently for downsizing’s sake, is a dubious practice at best.

  9. Truthfully, I’ve never understood the obsession with azaleas. I live in DC and there are too many overgrown, unloved bushes all over the place. The blooms are not particularly vibrant and the shrub is ugly. Just my opinion of course, so I can’t get all worked up over the Arboretum’s plan. It all boils down to budgetary problems.

  10. The U.S. National Arboretum was not really opened to the public until 1949. Part of the incentive was to showcase a gift of deciduous azaleas including Ghent, Knap Hill and Exbury varieties given to the United States by the people of the Netherlands as a “thank you” for our role in World War II. Those plants were set out in an area known as the Azalea Valley and Morrison planted his best Glenn Dale azaleas on Mt. Hamilton which was the hillside above.

    He did not consider any of those azaleas “culls” since they were the best 1200 varieties produced from approximately 70,000 seedlings raised in his monumental hybridizing program. He had already thrown the culls away, and these were the “best of the best.”

    Sadly, all of the azaleas given by the Dutch government died years ago so the only thing left is the sign at the overlook. I do remember them, though, and they were spectacular. That area is now full of invasive alien weeds and vines like many other untended areas in the Arboretum. The Glenn Dale azaleas on Mt. Hamilton continue to be bloom beautifully every year and are certainly better than the alternative.

  11. I applaud the private funding option that you suggest. There is no doubt Azaleas specifies should be preserved and this is a very innovative way of accomplishing this.

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