I Found My Thrill on Azalea Hill

I am not a big fan of Azaleas. Part of the reason is that they don’t grow well where I now live in Chicago. Even growing up outside New York City, where Azaleas are fairly common, they did not appeal to me. Perhaps it was because they generally appeared as little green meatballs that, for a couple of weeks every year, turned into little pink meatballs.

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A Flowering Dogwood shades colorful Azaleas along the edges of the National Arboretum’s Azalea Collection.

And yet, a few days ago I found myself at the National Arboretum in Washington, DC, strolling towards the Azalea Collection along with Judy and our friend Carol.

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The Azalea Collection is located in a woodland garden on the slopes of a large hill called, somewhat pretentiously, Mt. Hamilton. We did not know that most of Mt. Hamilton had been declared off limits in order to avoid disturbing a pair of bald eagle eagletsย born March 18th and 20th.

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The parent bald eagles built their nest near the top of a tulip tree on Mt. Hamilton. The parents are known as Mr. President and The First Lady. They are the first bald eagles to nest in the National Arboretum since 1947. There is a bald eagle cam through which you can watch the eaglets 24 hours per day, if you have nothing better to do. You can find the eagle cam by clicking here.

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Anyhow, back to the Azaleas. Fortunately, there were still thousands of Azaleas to be found on the parts of Mt. Hamilton which are not off limits.

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I enjoyed visiting the Azalea Collection. As you know, I am a sucker for brightly colored flowers. More than that, though, I liked how the Azaleas were allowed to assume their natural habits instead of being tightly pruned. Also, I appreciated how the Azaleas were woven into a peaceful woodland garden with many other plants that provided a counterpoint to all the intense color – for instance, the Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) carpeting the ground in the picture above.

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The Mayapples were blooming too, but very discretely.

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Azaleas in bloom are anything but subtle. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this golden shade of yellow. I like it, though.

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And I love the apricot color of the flowers in this picture.

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Nestled into the woodes slopes of Mount Hamilton is the more formal Morrison Garden, named after noted Azalea breeder and past National Arboretum Director Benjamin Morrison. Thousands of the Azaleas on Mt. Hamilton are products of Benjamin Morrison’s work.

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This brick path and boxwoods nicely frame the tree in the photo above. Wish I knew its name.

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A carpet of blue Phlox stolonifera provide contrast for blood red Azalea flowers.

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Supporting players of the Azalea Collection include woodland natives – and exotics, like the Arisaema above. Same genus as the native Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum).

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Here are some native Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) growing at the base of a large shade tree.

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This may horrify some of my English friends, but here a low-growing white Azalea is partnered with a patch of Spanish Bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica).

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Small flowering trees also make up part of the tapestry of the Azalea Collection. There were plenty of Flowering Dogwoods (Cornus florida), as in the first photo, but I was also taken by the Common Silverbell (Halesia tetraptera) above.

When the Azaleas are in bloom, the collection at the National Arboretum is certainly worth a visit. The brilliant patches blooming around an otherwise tranquil woodland garden is a little like fireworks being set off in a monastery.

55 Comments on “I Found My Thrill on Azalea Hill

  1. Thanks for the tour Jason, looks like a wonderful arboretum. Like you, I can’t grow them. I go back home to Scottish gardens in May to see them and the bluebells! I think British people are only horrified to see the Spanish bluebell in Britain. It is so much more aggressive than the native bluebell and hybridises with it. So the danger is losing the grace of the native species.

    • That makes sense about the bluebells. Spanish Bluebells couldn’t hybridize with our Virginia Bluebells, as they are a different genus.

  2. I enjoyed the tour of the arboretum. Azaleas in Canberra flower for about two week, and then return to the green meatball you described.(and that is how I will think of them from now on!.)..but those brilliant colours are a joy to see at the moment as we got through a very dry month here in Canberra. I love the orange/apricot ones but can never find one to buy. We do have wild geranium as a ground cover and it is amazing, it can stand heavy frosts and very hot summers.

  3. I’m not a fan of azaleas at all but enjoyed your tour nevertheless ๐Ÿ™‚ Good news about the eagles.

  4. I feel like you do about Azaleas, but here they look quite at home. They are a marmite plant – do you have that product there? Fantastic to hear about the Bald eagles, less so about the Spanish bluebells, but then neither Azaleas or the S. bluebells are natives for you. They hybridise with ours and are same family and genus. Presumably they were chosen here as they cannot do any harm to other plants.

    • I couldn’t think what you were talking about – “marmite plant”! I grew up in England so am quite familiar with Marmite. From Googling, I see that the current Marmite ad campaign is love it or hate it. Now I get it. I’m actually rather iffy about both Marmite and azaleas!

  5. Although I grow deciduous azaleas I have to agree that unless they are in flower they are not very prepossessing, they are not for a small garden but more for one where they “disappear” when not in flower.

    • Which is a good description of the garden we saw – although they did have a variety of Azaleas which, I was told, kept the blooming season going through June.

  6. ‘Fireworks at a monastery’ hahaha… I like that. I also like that the path goes straight at the trucks of those trees. They look blue in your photo. An azalea patch like this is glorious this time of year. I am with you about letting them grow at will.

  7. Glad you had plenty of azaleas to discover. They look lovely and that apricot one is amazing. Didn’t know about the National Arboretum–will have to make it to DC soon.

  8. Being from PA, I have always loved azalea but like in Chicago, they don’t have a very long life in WNY. The photos are wonderful and take me back to my many years growing up surrounded by them. BTW, I am in Chicago right now. Left in the fog and landed in fog. A bit nippy here too. Off to Seattle though, I bet more fog.

  9. Glorious azalea blooms, Jason. I don’t think they grow that tall in Canada – unless maybe in Vancouver. Thanks for sharing.

  10. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of azaleas — although they have some sentimental appeal for me as one of my late mother’s favorite plants.

    Here in Tennessee, many people try to grow the exotic Asian evergreen azaleas, but (IMHO) they usually don’t look very good out of blooms (which is most of the year) and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pollinator on an azalea flower.

    Native Southeastern azaleas – like the flame azalea (https://news.ncsu.edu/2015/06/epps-butterfly/) are supposed to attract pollinators, but again, I’ve never seen that in person.

    In fact, I was just at our botanic garden about a week ago and peered at some native azalea bushes in bloom. Nope, no pollinators in sight. (Although there seems to be a dearth of pollinators in general around our area this year, so perhaps I can’t make a judgment of a single observation.)

    • I’m seeing few pollinators also this year. There are native Azaleas, though, so they must attract some native pollinators.

  11. My feelings about peonies match your feelings about azaleas. But with peonies, I’m starting to come ’round ๐Ÿ™‚ Love, love, love that line of flowering azaleas through the woods.

      • Too funny! It’s similar to food you don’t like, but the more you eat it, the better it seems until one day you find yourself liking it quite a bit. For me, this happened with cilantro and arugula. I did not like them, but then something flipped, and now I like them a lot.

  12. That is a lovely way to see azaleas. My first introduction to them was when I moved to SC for a couple of years when I was 19. They made up all kinds of hedges and borders. I was absolutely amazed for the one day they were all in bloom. A rainstorm that night took care of all the blossoms, and then they were just green hedges. It seemed like a total waste of a shrub to me. I love the woodland planting here, though, where once the blossoms have gone, the azaleas can add to the general texture of the forest.

  13. I used to find azaleas gaudy, but having seen then in the wild, unpruned in the US, then back home in the Dorothy Clive Garden, I’m now a fan.

  14. There is an area in England around the Queen’s estate at Sandringham, where there are rhododendrons growing like this – quite lovely to see them almost wild beneath the tall trees. Love your description in your last sentence – very apt!

  15. “little green meatballs that, for a couple of weeks every year, turned into little pink meatballs” most excellent description! We removed several of those green meatballs shortly after buying our home. Of course there is an orange blooming Azalea that I find most fetching…

  16. This is beautiful. Now I am an azalea fan, even if I will likely never grow them. Thanks for the tour, the photos are lush and supportive of your last sentence, and thanks for the eagles, which have come back in such a big way I expect to see them nesting downtown soon. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • The eagles seem to be a lot more common along the Mississippi also. I guess this is a conservation success story.

  17. I am like you in that gardening on limestone an interest in azalea and rhodo would not take me very far. I can see fro your pictures that they come in their own when there is a lot of green background.

  18. Lots of plants get a bum rap because of the way humans treat them. I had an awakening to the possible beauty of Azaleas on a visit to a garden where they were allowed to do their thing. And last year I encountered one with magnificent fragrance. They may have wormed their way into my heart but have yet to do so in the garden…there are too many others ahead of them in line.

  19. Interesting…I find quite a few Azaleas here in the Madison area. I’ve never been a huge fan, either, but I’ve been thinking a couple of them might make sense in a really tough spot near the front foundation of our house. The choice must tolerate shade, be rabbit-resistant, and be petite. Some of the dwarf, cold-hardy Azalea species might be just the right thing… Thanks for the tour! I agree–letting the shrubs grow to their natural shapes makes them more appealing to me, too.

    • I don’t remember a lot of Azaleas from our days in Madison. Is it possible the soil is more acidic in your area?

  20. Yeah, I’m not a fan of pruned azaleas either! They look beautiful in a natural wooded setting like the one in the NA.

    You asked about the native azaleas – it’s pretty easy to tell them from the Asian varieties and even the hybrids. They are deciduous, with small flowers that are often very sweetly fragrant. Many species grow well over 5 feet tall and some even end up looking like small trees. Several species (like the Piedmont azaleas and Pinxterflowers) have very long curved stamens that are beautiful.

    • The natives sound nice – if I lived in the southeast I would grow some. I especially like that they are fragrant.

  21. I started growing azaleas back when we lived in south Jersey, and eagerly planted some here. I’ve never pruned mine, so I think they have a nice shape and I love the flowers. The azaleas at the National Arboretum are beautiful. I love all the colors. I may need to find a spot for another one in a new color. PS I think my alliums are growing! I must have a late spring species.

    • Hurrah for your alliums! Do you find that your azaleas are doing well here in Chicago? Do you acidify the soil?

  22. A lovely tour, and yes, those azaleas sure do shine out! I rather like their burst of colour early spring, I particularly like those yellow ones. Good to know the bald eagles are being taken such good care of.xxx

  23. I see you were in my extended neighborhood! We really enjoy visiting the National Arboretum during changes in season, and my kids especially like the Bonsai collection. ๐Ÿ™‚

    The meatball Azalea description made me laugh out loud! In my community, they are often pruned into sharp cube shapes to blend in with the boxwood hedges. My neighbor has two giant “box” Azaleas in her yard, and I always thought it was a shame; they are much more attractive when left untouched. ๐Ÿ™‚

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