Another Round of Pink

: The Azalea Collection attracts thousands of visitors to the US National Arboretum every spring. The collection covers 40 acres including trails to the top of Mt. Hamilton, one of DC’s highest places. The blooms are early this year, but late bloomers go through mid-May.

Washington is known around the world for its Cherry Blossoms. The National Cherry Blossom Festival now runs for a month with pink tie parties, parades, a neighborhood decorating contest and much more. Pink is everywhere one looks.  

Keeping the pink preoccupation going, our azaleas have followed the early timing of this year’s cherry blossoms by arriving a month early. Suddenly, we are seeing pinks, reds, purples, and white flowering shrubs everywhere. 

Azaleas and Rhodendrums

Most of us have seen the strikingly beautiful golf course where the Masters golf tournament is played each spring in Augusta, Georgia.  The abundance of pink blooms is stunning. The 13th hole of the course is called Azalea and there are 1,600 plants surrounding this hole.  Experts said that this year, the azaleas bloomed a little early, so they were past peak bloom for the televised event, but were beautiful nonetheless.  Azaleas are native to the southeastern part of the US and, after decades of breeding, are now available in a great variety, shape, and color.

First, it is important to note that while it is often hard to distinguish an azalea and a rhododendron, they are two different kinds of plant. The American Rhododendron Society says it this way, “all azaleas are rhododendrons but not all rhododendrons are azaleas.”  One of the easiest ways to tell, if you can wait until fall, is that most azaleas lose their leaves while rhododendrons are evergreens.  Although in today’s plant world, many azaleas have also been bred to be evergreen. 

Growing conditions are similar for both and are ideal for Capitol Hill home gardens.  The plants like morning sunlight, and dappled afternoon shade.  They thrive in acidic soil, so improvement of the Hill’s clay soil helps the shrubs along.  Local nursery experts seem to agree that azaleas are a little more adaptable than the rhododendron.  Size is always a factor for Hill gardens and azaleas grow to a height of five feet and can be just as wide. Rhododendrons can get up to twenty feet in width.

A section of the Azalea Collection is the Lee Garden that specializes in Satsuki azaleas from Japan. These azaleas are late-blooming and are often used in bonsai. Seating in the area makes for a great place to meditate.

The National Arboretum Azalea Collection

The best proof that azaleas love the Hill climate is the famous azaleas collection at the US National Arboretum just two miles from the Capitol.  The collection covers 40 acres of hillside that leads to one of the highest points in DC, Mt. Hamilton. The mountain is 240 feet tall.  For the past few years, sections of the trails were blocked to protect the bald eagles, Mr. President and Lotus, who had made a nest in the trees near the top of Mt. Hamilton. A year ago, the eagle pair moved nearer the Anacostia River down by Langston Golf course. All trails are now open.

White rhododendron shrubs make a striking fence between two Massachusetts Avenue front yards in the 1000 block NE.

In 1946, B.Y. Morrison, a horticulturalist and landscape architect, had planted over 15,000 azaleas on the south-side of Mt. Hamilton. The azaleas are known as the Glenn Dale hybrids.  Glenn Dale azaleas are prized plants, and the Azalea Society lists 454 hybrids in this collection,

In addition to the Morrison Garden and Mt Hamilton overlook, there is the Henry Mitchell Walk named for the Washington Post’s Garden writer in 1999.  Along the path there are four groups of cultivated azaleas that are well known in the mid-Atlantic area.  The groups offer a range of colors, shapes, sizes, and bloom times.  It is often suggested that revisiting the collections several times during blooming season lets you appreciate the many different colors and styles of the azaleas.

And, just off the main trail, there is the Lee Garden that features Japanese azaleas.

There are over 100 selections in this part of the garden, The garden is named for Frederic Lee, a lawyer and azalea collector who served on the National Arboretum Council from 1946 to 1968.  The Japanese azaleas are often used in bonsai and are late bloomers in our area.  The Lee Garden has a nice sitting area and is a great place to meditate in the quiet of the forest.

Glenn Dale Azaleas for Sale

Meadow Farms in Falls Church, Virginia is one of the nursery companies that have a large variety of azaleas and rhododendrons for sale including the Glenn Dale azaleas, although they are not available in the Falls Church site.  Sarah, a manager at Meadow Farms for the last 13 years, says that most specialty plants like the Glenn Dale would be handled through their Richmond greenhouse and the specialty buyers there.  “Not impossible to get,” she says, “just not currently at our store.”

The bright pink shade of the azaleas can create a stunning design in a garden, as seen at the corner of 7th and East Capitol Streets, N.E.

There were plenty of encore azaleas, bred to bloom in three seasons, at the Falls Church nursery.  Sarah says that they really haven’t caught on yet, and it may be because in the DC region, they really don’t bloom three times, only two.  “We are just not warm enough a climate to work here.” Sarah advises that, if you do your homework,  you can probably find the azalea you are looking for somewhere in the DMV.

Another suggested nursery is Whites Nursery at 22531 Wildcat Road in Germantown, Maryland. Mike White, owner, supplies many of the arboretum and parks in the DMV, and would be worth checking for a special azalea.

Other Azalea Displays in the Area

While we are spoiled by having the Arboretum collection so close, there are great azalea blooming viewing sites that are near and worth a spring outing.  One that is close is the Franciscan Monastery near Catholic University.  It features a hillside planted in azaleas on its 40-acre gardens.  Hillwood Estate and Gardens (admission charged) includes hundreds of azaleas throughout its gardens. And the Rachel Carson Conservation Park in Olney, Maryland features wild azaleas that are late bloomers.

The further south you travel, there are great collections including the Lewis Ginter Gardens in Richmond and the Norfolk Botanic Gardens where the first azaleas were collected and planted in 1938.

More pink please.  Once you treat yourself to the beauty of the azalea and rhododendrons you will be hooked.  Whether you just put a shrub in a corner of your garden, or plant an entire wall of spring bloomers, you will not regret it.

Spring is a great time to check out the many different garden plant sales in our area.  In May, one of the biggest flower sales is the Washington National Cathedral’s Flower Mart.  The festival began in 1939 and continues many of the original activities including an antique carousel and arcade games.  The front lawn is set up to sell plants, herbs, bonsai, orchids, and fabulous cut flower arrangements.  The Washington Cathedral is at 3101 Wisconsin Avenue, NW, and will be open May 3rd, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and May 4th 10 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Rindy O’Brien loves the meditative trails of the National Arboretum’s azalea collection and hopes to find you there this spring. To contact Rindy,