Azaleas are popping allover the Washington region this week. But until recently, the world famous azalea collection at the U.S. Arboretum was in jeopardy. We talk with the arboretum’s director about what ultimately saved their azaleas, and about the future of arboretum in Washington, D.C.


  • Colien Hefferan Director, U.S. National Arboretum


  • 12:40:45

    MS. REBECCA ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Rebecca Roberts, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Azaleas are popping throughout the Washington region this week, but the famed azaleas at the U.S. National Arboretum, which attract hundreds of thousands of viewers every spring, may not be popping with the same kind of pizzazz next year. Plans have been scrapped for the time being to destroy parts of the Arboretum's azalea collection, which was one of the primary reasons the 446-acre arboretum was opened to the public more than 60 years ago, but budget problems still threaten the future of those plants.

  • 12:41:17

    MS. REBECCA ROBERTSJoining us to explore what the -- how those azaleas fit in to the mission of the National Arboretum and whether the arboretum itself fits in to Washington's cultural fabric is the director of the U.S. National Arboretum, Colien Hefferan joins us here in studio. Welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."

  • 12:41:31

    DR. COLIEN HEFFERANThank you for inviting me.

  • 12:41:33

    ROBERTSAnd if you'd like to join us, give us a call. 800-433-8850 is the phone number. So we should say, Colien Hefferan, you just came to this job a couple of months ago, so the azalea controversy was not of your making, but you walked right into it. Can you tell us how this began and where it stands now?

  • 12:41:52

    HEFFERANWell, like all public institutions, the Arboretum has been facing financial challenges over a number of years. And last year, we lost a contribution that supported our garden and our public display programs. We have many missions at the Arboretum. We're a research facility for the Agricultural Research Service. We're also an education and a public display function. So when we lost some funding for our public display area, folks began to look at what met our mission the best and determined that, over time, a portion, not all, but a portion of the azaleas would be subject to what in the museum world is called deaccessioning . But we put that decision on hold while we look at our resource use and look at other support services to maintain that iconic collection.

  • 12:42:43

    ROBERTSAnd the reasoning behind that was that these were not well-sourced plants, the records was -- weren't particularly good, they weren't necessarily rigorous in their research.

  • 12:42:54

    HEFFERANWell, we're not doing research on azaleas now, but that's not to say that we don't value those azaleas tremendously. They were one of the first major research projects at the Arboretum. One of the previous leaders of the Arboretum actually bred azaleas to move them into a farther northern climate and was very successful, but he planted over 15,000 azaleas, and that collection has grown very substantially so that the plan was to remove perhaps 20 percent of those.

  • 12:43:27

    HEFFERANBut let me reiterate, we're not going to remove those azaleas now, but the notion was with a collection of tens of thousands of azaleas, that was a possibility for deaccessioning so that we could support the other 15 collections at the Arboretum. But again, we put that on hold. We're not taking any azaleas out of the Arboretum, and our Friends group and others have been working very hard to improve our resource picture.

  • 12:43:56

    ROBERTSGiven that public display is one of the missions and the azaleas are very popular, was it a little bit of a -- bluff is the wrong word, but is threatening the azaleas a way to get attention?

  • 12:44:11

    HEFFERANYou know, I've asked that question too. You know, we weren't closing the Washington Monument to point out financial problems at all. Now, remember, this did happen before I got there, but I'm convinced it was a sincere decision based on management of our resources and looking at our mission for research. I think what we have learned in this is that people really care about the Arboretum and care about the collections that are there. And for many people, the azaleas hold a lot of personal history as well as scientific history, and we want to honor that.

  • 12:44:46

    ROBERTSLet's take a call from Angela in Leesburg, Va. Angela, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."

  • 12:44:52

    ANGELAThank you. I just heard in the beginning of your program that the plan was to destroy the azaleas. And I -- this was -- my mouth dropped. I don't understand why you wouldn't consider just giving them to the public or to farms, to apartment buildings, to other parts of the area that they can beautify rather than to destroy them?

  • 12:45:19

    ROBERTSColien Hefferan, you said they're staying, but what would deaccessioning actually look like?

  • 12:45:23

    HEFFERANWell, of course, when you take plants out of a public place like the Arboretum, some of them probably cannot be transplanted. However, the Arboretum provides germplasm -- that could be seeds, it can be clippings or cuttings from plants -- to other scientific organizations, other public gardens. And we do that all the time, and we'll do that with the azaleas this year as we have many times in the past, so we don't gratuitously destroy plant life. There's really no one who loves the azaleas more than we do at the Arboretum, so, no, we wouldn't have put them into a pile and just let them be destroyed. We probably would have given them primarily, though, to other scientific organizations, other public gardens, places where the beauty and the value of them would be seen by many people.

  • 12:46:15

    ROBERTSLet's hear from Jeanie in Washington, D.C. Jeanie, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."

  • 12:46:20

    JEANIEThank you, Rebecca. I just wanted to say I was out at the Arboretum this Saturday and Sunday volunteering for the Save the Azalea campaign. And first of all, the azaleas are truly beautiful this year, and there were many, many people visiting. But I hope our listeners understand that unless the private sector steps up to the plate, helps with financial support for the Arboretum, that the federal government, given all the budget cutting that's going on, will not be able to do all that they would like to do. And so, I hope people know that while there's a temporary reprieve for the azaleas, there's still a lot of work to do. There's the Friends organization, Friends of the National Arboretum that's working to save the azaleas, and people can go to the website,, and learn more how they can help.

  • 12:47:16

    ROBERTSJeanie, thank you for your call. Again,, Friends of the National Arboretum is a Friends organization. And their money is specifically targeted to the azaleas and boxwood.

  • 12:47:27

    HEFFERANWell, the Friends of the National Arboretum, which is public citizens from this area and around the country, provides lots of support to the Arboretum for gardening assistance, for internships and fellowships. The campaign that Jeanie was talking about is one that is focused on the azaleas and on the boxwood to create an endowment to sustain that particular collection well into the future. And that's one of the things that we're looking at is how we sustain our resources at the Arboretum for many of our collections. And again, the FONA organization has focused on azaleas and boxwoods because there was so much concern, and there's a real iconic nature to those particular collections.

  • 12:48:13

    HEFFERANOur boxwood collection actually is the international registry for boxwood. We have about 175 breeds of -- cultivars of boxwood. So there's many things at the Arboretum that people care about. We have the National Bonsai Museum, which is supported also by the National Bonsai Foundation as well as the federal investment. We have research collections. We have collections of herbs, collections of plants from Asia, native plants. We have 15 different, separate collections as well as many things that integrate into the Arboretum. So to maintain that wide range of collections, we need both public support and support from groups like the Friends of the National Arboretum.

  • 12:49:02

    ROBERTSMy guest is Colien Hefferan. She is director of the U.S. National Arboretum. You may join us at 800-433-8850 or send us email, I wanna talk about one of the research pieces of news that happened lately, which is this discovery of some elm trees that might be resistant to Dutch elm disease. Can you tell us about that?

  • 12:49:25

    HEFFERANWell, I'm so glad you asked about that because the Arboretum has a large and very extensive research program. We've introduced a lot of plants that are in this area because of Arboretum research, including some poinsettias, which are popular in the market now in ways we never would have advantaged.

  • 12:49:44

    ROBERTSThere are poinsettias that grow in Washington?

  • 12:49:46

    HEFFERANNo, no, no. Potted plants. No, no, no. But the availability from a long period of time is partly from our research. But directly to your question about elms, Dutch elm disease, of course, has devastated the U.S. since it entered the country in the 1920s. And while there are a few cultivars of elm, which we have developed at the Arboretum which are resistant to Dutch elm disease, there really are not enough to meet the market. So we've gone back to look at the genetic structure of elms to find if there are some that would be more likely to be resistant to elm disease.

  • 12:50:24

    HEFFERANAnd through some collection of plants and genetic review of those plants, we found that there is a particular genetic structure that appears to be very likely to be good for development and the development of new versions of the American elm that will be resistant to Dutch elm. We're quite a ways from completing that research. For one thing, tree research takes forever. But...

  • 12:50:50


  • 12:50:51

    HEFFERANBecause trees take so long to grow. And before we can really understand their resistance to that disease, they need to be relatively mature. But we do --- we are confident that this new research will open up a line of inquiry that hadn't been there before and holds great promise for expanding the availability of really one of America's great street trees that are just beautiful elm trees, tall stately trees that we'd like to see in this country again.

  • 12:51:20

    ROBERTSI didn't think about that. But, of course, it must be true that if you are doing genetic research on something that takes a very long time for a new generation to grow, it must be very slow research?

  • 12:51:30

    HEFFERANWell, you know, when you look at trees, you're obviously thinking about the future, and we know that our environment is changing. We're looking now at more kinds of research that will create drought-resistant trees, trees that might be able to manage differences in weather patterns. So it is long-term research. We also do research on ornamental plants and floral plants, but tree research is really an investment in the long-term future, something a lot of people care about.

  • 12:51:59

    ROBERTSThere seems to be some more public attention lately to research on invasive species as well. Is that a priority at the Arboretum?

  • 12:52:05

    HEFFERANYes. Not only are we researching invasive species, but ways to detect those species, particularly ones that you wouldn't envision could come across the border in imported plants. For example, we have a research team that is developing a way to identify viruses, even those that we haven't seen in this country that come in on plants. That's particularly important not only to homeowners, but the landscape and horticultural industry, which is the third largest agricultural industry in this country.

  • 12:52:36

    HEFFERANSo we really do want to have better ways to detect disease that can have a tremendous effect on our existing landscape, and certainly an effect on the industry. So that's an important part of our work. Invasive species are a problem. Sounds a little exotic when you say that, but species of both fungal diseases, various kinds of pests that come in with plants can have a devastating effect in the industry.

  • 12:53:04

    ROBERTSWell, specifically, I read about some research on a hybrid hemlock that is tolerant to invasive insects. Can you tell us more about that research?

  • 12:53:12

    HEFFERANWell, one of our scientists should probably be here to explain that in depth. But what we're looking at is, as our environment changes, what makes a long-term plant like a hemlock able to withstand a new kind of either disease that might come in on an insect or bacterial disease. And that, again, is long-term research to look at how you can essentially strengthen the structure of the plant so that it can withstand a wide range of diseases.

  • 12:53:43

    ROBERTSYou talked about the sort of multiple priorities at the Arboretum, and certainly, I think, the public display arm of that gets the attention, for obvious reasons. As the newish director, how do you feel those priorities work with each other? And do you have a focus of one over another?

  • 12:54:02

    HEFFERANWell, we certainly want to have the Arboretum be an excellent place for folks to understand what cultivated environments are about and how they work together with our natural environment. And that helps them understand the value of research and science that underpins that cultivation. So I really see those missions as interrelated. I also think that people are interested in learning what they can do to make the environment more sustainable. Obviously, around this area, we're very concerned about the Chesapeake Bay.

  • 12:54:33

    HEFFERANWell, what would you need to put into your garden to reduce runoff, to sustain what you'd like to see in that garden but minimize the amount of pesticide and herbicide and fertilizer that you use there? So we do research, and the Agricultural Research Service supports research in those areas. So displaying that science, I think, is not only of interest, but also a great value for helping people understand what it really takes to manage an environment effectively. So what we're really trying to do is to balance all those functions.

  • 12:55:07

    ROBERTSHow would you say the priorities at the Arboretum contrast or complement, say, the botanical garden on the Hill?

  • 12:55:13

    HEFFERANWell, the botanical garden is primarily a display garden, but they also have a very big and well-developed educational function. They don't have an extensive research program, as we do. The National Arboretum is linked to other research arboretums and public gardens around the country, and has one of the largest research staffs of any horticultural program, ornamental horticultural program in the country. So we have a somewhat related but also different mission in the botanic garden.

  • 12:55:48

    HEFFERANWe also, for visitors, offer a different experience at the Arboretum. There are 446 acres. Some of it is highly cultivated, like the herb garden or the Asian collections. But part of the beauty of it is the sheer scale of what you see there. I think that's part of the beauty of the azaleas. There's tens of thousands of azaleas on a hillside, a 40-acre hillside that is a natural environment with dappled sunlight, with brilliant colors in the spring. And so that's...

  • 12:56:22

    ROBERTSAnd on any given Saturday, about six brides taking pictures of it. (laugh)

  • 12:56:26

    HEFFERANWell, there are many people who love to find not only the azaleas, but the dogwoods and other collections as a place for beautiful pictures. So a lot of people have very iconic experiences there, too. I talked to someone the other day, who was telling me they were really looking forward to Mother's Day because they were going to bring their mother, their grandmother and their great grandmother to the Arboretum for Mother's Day. And they were going to do that because, as a child, they had come to the Arboretum with their mother and grandmother previously. So there are people who have a real connection to that. But it's about how science can really make those cultivated places optimal to see.

  • 12:57:07

    ROBERTSMm-hmm. And you have to -- people who go there plan to go there. Tourists don't wander in 'cause they're lost looking for the Air and Space Museum, you know. So what do you find your visitors are looking for?

  • 12:57:18

    HEFFERANWell, they're looking to see the vistas, the long views, the collection of things that range, again, from native plants and natural environments to highly cultivated areas. You're right. It's a place that you have to go to deliberately, but more than 500,000 people find their way to the Arboretum each year. And probably those who are most delighted are those who come at the times of year when the flashiest displays are not there, and they see the subtlety of beautiful plants growing in an environment that is so varied.

  • 12:57:59

    ROBERTSAnd just quickly. Sorry. For people who do wanna get there, there's some construction starting on New York Avenue, right before you. What's the easiest way for people to get there?

  • 12:58:09

    HEFFERANWell, there's two entrances to the Arboretum. There is one on New York Avenue, 3501 New York Avenue, going toward Annapolis. But the other one is on R Street, off Bladensburg Road.

  • 12:58:20

    ROBERTSWe have to leave it there. Colien Hefferan of the U.S. National Arboretum. I'm Rebecca Roberts, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi.

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