Success Story

Glenn Dale Azaleas

Glenn Dale Azaleas

The Azalea Society of America (ASA) formed late in 1977. The ASA leadership at the time established a number of primary goals - two of which were: (1) the establishment of local chapters; and (2) the development of "national projects." With the chartering of the Ben Morrison Chapter in 1980, the election of Roger Brown of New Carrollton, Maryland, as chapter president, and Brown's proximity to Glenn Dale, the Ben Morrison Chapter approached the station staff about a cooperative effort. That Frank White of Azalea Acres was promoting the concept was a major motivating factor. Frank, who operated his Azalea Acres Nursery in Lanham, Maryland, for many years, spoke often of being a part-time laborer at the Glenn Dale station as a child. After a number of years of negotiations, a joint proposal was upgraded from a chapter activity to an ASA national project. On June 17, 1982, a special USDA permit was issued and the ASA had its first national project, The Glenn Dale Preservation Program.

The Station at Glenn Dale has always been a closed facility; that is, it is not generally open to the public. We were gratified that the people at Glenn Dale were receptive and responsive to our interest. An aggressive restoration program ensued involving the historical azalea plantings and the development of a new azalea germplasm garden. Recognizing the inherent problems of national projects and ignoring the distance involved, I decided to invest my time in support of this new ASA sponsored effort. I assumed the major administrative responsibilities which included annual planning and publishing an annual report in The Azalean. Workdays were scheduled and years of benign neglect began to be rolled back. In the beginning, there was reasonable interest and perhaps a dozen volunteers were present, but as the years wore on fewer and fewer participants showed up for the workdays - until I found myself an "army of one." As I predicted early on, "national" interest waned quickly for such is the usual fate of "top-down" national projects.

On November 27, 1997, after sixteen years of commitment, I informed the ASA Board of Directors (BOD) of my intention to withdraw from the Glenn Dale Preservation Program. In my final report, I stated: "With the pressure of matters at work and at home, and the recognition that the opportunities at Glenn Dale had diminished, managing a graceful sunset to the project had been on my mind for a number of years." I gave the BOD an opportunity to find a replacement, but my recommendation was that an orderly termination of the project was more realistic. The BOD ultimately concurred with my recommendation and the ASA's first national project was terminated.

In the final analysis, the project was successful. It did not achieve all of its goals, but it did facilitate a research opportunity that led to more than 30 publications

Members attending the Fifth ASA [Azalea Society of America] National Meeting visited the Plant Introduction Station of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) at Glenn Dale, Maryland, on Saturday, April 30, 1983. The group was met and welcomed by Dr. Bruce Parliman, the acting location leader, who briefly explained the functions and responsibilities of the Station and showed examples of "tissue culture," a technique being utilized in one of the ongoing projects at Glenn Dale. The tour proceeded to the Azalea Test Area and Collection site to view the area where the ASA is actively pursuing its Glenn Dale Preservation Program, which involves restoring the original Azalea Test Area and developing a collection of azalea hybrid groups.

Mission and Function of the Glenn Dale Station

The Glenn Dale Plant Introduction Station, built in 1920, is located sixteen miles northeast of Washington, D.C., and serves as a major focus in the United States Department of Agriculture's program to locate, identify, and acquire new varieties of plant material. The Glenn Dale Station is part of the USDA Agricultural Research Service officially located at the larger Beltsville, Maryland, Agricultural Research Center and falls within the auspices of the Plant Genetics and Germplasm Institute. Covering some 70 acres, the Glenn Dale Station consists of offices, laboratories for horticulture, plant breeding, and plant pathology research, seed archives, cold rooms, tissue culture transfer rooms, and 34,000 square feet of greenhouse space, one-third of which is specially constructed for plant quarantine purposes.

Glenn Dale is one of several USDA facilities charged with the introduction of new germplasm (seeds, tubers, bulbs, cuttings, and plants) into the country for the purpose of enriching the genetic/phenotypic varieties available to plant breeders, horticulturists, and agronomists. It provides quarantine facilities until such time as newly introduced material is shown to be free from plant pests, especially insects, bacteria, and viruses. For certain genotypes it performs preliminary evaluations to determine the potential usefulness of new material, and it propagates and distributes new plant germplasm to public and commercial researchers, nurseries, cooperators, and specialists.

Research programs at the Glenn Dale Station include breeding programs to develop improved cultivars of woody ornamentals, pathology programs to develop better methods of detecting, identifying, isolating, characterizing, and eliminating latent viruses (viruses not detectable by casual observation), and tissue culture and other propagation techniques which make it possible to multiply rare, hard-to-propagate, slow-to-grow and/or extremely valuable plant germplasm. Plant materials sent to Glenn Dale from other countries include fruit crops such as apples, pears, cherries, peaches, and citrus; field crops such as white potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava (tapioca), and forage grasses; and ornamental crops ranging from crabapples and flowering cherries to amaryllis, willows, roses, chrysanthemums, and carnations.

Comparatively little in the way of everyday food and fiber crops actually originated in the United States, which makes the Station's mission all the more important. The list of food crops native to North America is meager by any standard and includes only crops such as sunflowers, cranberries, blueberries, pecans, and some grapes. Apples, cherries, squash, pumpkins, beans, corn, and cotton, for example, were introduced from other parts of the world. The United States has been described as germplasm poor; that is, a "have-not" nation in terms of a natural distribution of crop germplasm. But it was through an early-on recognition of this sparseness and the determination and resolve to address it, that the United States has risen to its current leadership position in agricultural crop production.

The first official federal plant introduction effort began in 1827 when then President John Quincy Adams ordered American Consuls to send home rare plants and seeds. The USDA was created in 1862, a Commissioner of Agriculture was appointed to collect, test, and distribute potentially valuable plant germplasm, and a separate unit for plant exploration and introduction was established. Through the years, this special unit has had many names: the Section of Seed and Plant Introduction, the Office of Seed and Plant Introduction, the Division of Foreign Plant Introduction, the Division of Plant Exploration and Introduction, the New Crops Research Branch, and the Germplasm Resources Laboratory, to name a few. The list of explorers who traveled all over the world in search of germplasm includes among others: Fairchild, Hansen, Swingle, Carleton, Rock, Cook, Meyer, and more recently Creech. Special agent O.F. Cook is remembered for his work in the preparation and periodic issuance of Plant Inventories, a practice which continues today in the publication of an annual catalog of plant introductions. Incidentally, the first recorded accession, Plant Introduction (P.I.) No. 1, is assigned to Russian cabbage seeds which were received by Professor N.E. Hanson of the Agriculture College of South Dakota in 1898.

In the wake of a number of world disasters like the Irish Potato Blight, and through a series of quarantine acts beginning with the Plant Quarantine Act of 1912 and the Federal Plant Pest Act of 1957, authority was provided to control the introduction of exotic pests, to establish survey and control programs, and to develop pest control mechanisms like the issuance of phytosanitary certificates. Today, additional regulations are found under Title 7, Chapter III of the Code of Federal Regulations. The Plant Introduction Station at Glenn Dale plays a big role in protecting our crops and our environment from many potential disasters of nightmarish proportions.

The Station and the Glenn Dale Azaleas

The Glenn Dale Plant Introduction Station has had many success stories with the various food and ornamental crops. Among them are the Bradford pear and a whole host of azaleas which, as a group, bear the station's name, the Glenn Dale azaleas. The official account of the program leading to the development of the Glenn Dale hybrid azaleas is found in a 1953 government publication - USDA Monograph 20 entitled "The Glenn Dale Azaleas" written by B.Y. Morrison (currently reprinted by Theophrastus Publishing, Little Compton, Rhode Island). Insight into the goals, methods, and materials of the work and more importantly descriptions of the 454 selected cultivars are included in the monograph. In its original form, Monograph 20 is something of a collector's item, but regardless of its vintage, it is essential reading for anyone interested in appreciating the Glenn Dale hybrids to the fullest extent. There is a wealth of information contained in the observations found in the introductory passages.

Ben Morrison began hybridizing azaleas at the Glenn Dale Station during the 1920s. With the help of Harry Gunning, Albert Close, and Frank Dowdle over 70,000 seedlings were produced from crosses involving species and cultivars of the subseries Obtusum. The first official distributions were not until 1942, and they continued through the late '40s and into the early '50s. The primary goal of the program was to develop improved, large-flowering, winter-hardy azaleas for the Washington, D.C., area, zones 6, 7, and south, which exhibit the qualities inherent in the Southern Indicas, which as a general rule do not do well out of the South. Twelve distinct groups of 10-40 plants each are discernable within the Glenn Dale hybrids which differ chiefly in plant habit and period of bloom. In addition to their beauty and relative cold tolerance, the Glenn Dale hybrids fill the bloom gap between the end of the Kurumes and beginning of the indicums and Satsukis. In reviewing the records at Glenn Dale, it has been discovered that a number of Glenn Dale hybrids ('Alexandria', 'Aries', 'Barchester', 'Berceuse', 'Candlelight', 'Caress', 'Etna', 'Fenelon', 'Horus', 'Naxos', 'Orpheus', 'Pontiff', 'Romance', and 'Touchstone') were never formally distributed to the horticulture community (Magruder, 1968).

The Glenn Dale Preservation Program

It is unfortunate to note that many of the principals involved in the development of the Glenn Dale hybrids have died. With the inevitable changes in federal interest, emphasis, and funding priorities, the passage of time (more than 40 years), and the absence until recently of an azalea society to spark a renaissance, the Glenn Dale hybrids have become increasingly difficult to find. But the good news is that something is being done about it. For the past three years, Roger Brown, president of the Ben Morrison Chapter, has worked with USDA officials to develop a mutually beneficial program which would permit restoration of the original Glenn Dale Azalea Test Area (approximately five acres) and establishment of a secure germplasm preservation garden (approximately two acres) for named and unnamed azalea cultivars. Over the years, the Azalea Test Area, the site of much of the original azalea work, had become so overgrown that many of the parents and siblings of Morrison's original hybrids were in danger of being lost. After a long series of meetings and contacts with USDA officials, authorization was granted on June 17, 1982, for the Azalea Society of America to begin restoration activities.

During two work sessions in October and November 1982, great progress was made toward restoring the Azalea Test Area to its former splendor. Society members cleaned approximately 60 percent of the original site of weeds, dead limbs, and unwanted saplings. On the administrative side, a committee of three was formed, consisting of the authors and Roger Brown, to create a working document, a structure for the activity. The resulting Concept Proposal has been approved by the Board of Governors of the Azalea Society of America and by USDA officials. Last fall, through the courtesy of Dr. Bruce Parliman, the Committee was permitted the use of a cold frame. A cap was constructed over the cold frame for the protection of the 150 plants donated by Society members that had been received by the Committee. This past summer a small portion of the nearly two-acre Azalea Hybrid Group Garden was prepared to receive plants and all of last year's donations were planted, fed, and mulched.

As plants bloom in the Azalea Test Area, the Glenn Dale Preservation Committee will attempt to correctly identify and tag as many plants as possible. In order to expand the program to its full potential, however, we need to acquire through donations plants to fill in the various azalea groups. Several thousand azaleas can be planted in the two-acre Azalea Hybrid Group Garden. USDA introductions in addition to the Glenn Dales, the Beltsville hybrids, the Back Acres, The Yerkes-Pryors, Robin Hills, and Linwoods will be some of the first groups collected. Eventually all recognized hybrid azalea groups will be represented. It is the hope of the Committee that through the "Program" we will be able to preserve the rich heritage of the past and the wealth of the present by obtaining complete collections of the old standards and the new introductions while they are still available.