Azaleas @ US National Arboretum
The US National Arboretum: Azalea Collections
(Glenn Dale Azalea Hillside, Morrison Garden, Lee Garden)
There are two times of the year in DC where I will drop everything in favor of flowers: the cherry blossoms around the tidal basin in early spring, and the blooming of the azaleas at the US National Arboretum. The Arboretum has so much to offer year-round on its acres of land just outside the city, but there is nothing quite like the full azalea experience around the end of April.
The azalea collections are spread out all over the slopes of Mount Hamilton, varying from the orderly oasis of the Morrison Garden to the riot of colors spilling down the hillsides carved out with meandering paths that make up the Glen Dale azalea hillside. The haphazard and spontaneous planting of the Glen Dale varieties, without proper classification or documentation, almost caused their extinction several years ago when budget cuts threatened the upkeep of the collection of approximately 12,000 azaleas. Public outcry and surprising government action combined to save the collections from immediate destruction, but there is still much assistance needed to keep this national treasure open to the public. You can help here: http://www.savetheazaleas.org
Final Rating: The blooming of the azaleas at the arboretum is a full immersive floral experience that rewards the curious garden enthusiast and nature photographer alike with pathways all over the hillsides allowing you to admire the azaleas from many different perspectives. On a quiet (weekday) afternoon you can sit and soak in the beauty of the tranquil Lee Garden next to a small pond or climb the steps to the enchanting brick-walled Morrison garden with its tidy boxwood hedges framing the flowers perfectly around a small fountain. If the crowds with loud children crash the calm, there are any number of paths to duck through tunnels of color to more secluded areas away from the masses. Mind you, these gardens are only a fraction of what can be found at the US National Arboretum, but at peak bloom the azaleas deserve all the attention!
UPDATE: Since this post was written, a family of bald eagles has established their nest in a tree adjacent to the azalea collection, successfully raising three eaglets. This is a big deal for conservation, yet the protected area around the nest unfortunately cuts off a section of trails through the wilder, rambling plantings of azaleas on the hillsides. Based on this development and also in an effort to make my rating system more accurate overall, I am adjusting the rating on this garden from five to four blooms. Eventually I will need to do a proper review of the US National Arboretum as a whole, because it is one of my favorite places and totally worth the top rating. 4 BLOOM RATING