National Geographic : 1947 May
Nautical Norfolk Turns to Azaleas BY WILLIAM H. NICHOLAS N IDEA, the depression of the thirties, and nine years of hard work have transformed a 40-acre stretch of tan gled undergrowth outside Norfolk, Virginia, into an azalea fairyland. Last year, between March 17 and April 22, the height of the season, 75,000 azaleas burst into bloom in this youthful addition to the Nation's floral show places. In a wooded set ting of wax myrtle, sweet bay, dogwood, holly, cypress, and tall loblolly pines, the dazzling display thrilled 67,500 visitors. The man who had the idea was Frederic Heutte, Norfolk's French-born Superintendent of Parks and Forestry (Plate IV). In 1937 he visited the azalea gardens of Charleston, South Carolina.* A horticulturist since he was 14, Heutte was so impressed with Charleston's magnificent azalea showing that he wanted Norfolk to have azalea gardens, too. Climate Favorable to Azaleas He felt sure his city's geographical location was favorable. Almost surrounded by water, its temperature is more even than that of most eastern cities. Seldom has the thermometer dropped lower than 20° F. above zero. Heutte believed that not only could cold hardy varieties be raised here, but also delicate southern species which could not survive at other places so far north. Therefore, he rea soned, Norfolk azalea gardens would have a longer blooming season than gardens farther south, because they could have many varieties of both early- and late-blooming types. Norfolk's ship-minded city fathers gave the project enthusiastic approval and backing. For a location they chose a tract in Norfolk's watershed properties about six miles from the city limits. It comprises about 75 acres of high, wooded ground, and an equal acreage submerged by an arm of Little Creek Reservoir. Here moisture from the lakes and the pres ence of many tall trees afford additional pro tection in winter. In 1938 several hundred Negro women, unable to find work, were on Norfolk's relief rolls. To give them employment, the city formulated a WPA project for the azalea park, with 90 percent of the work to be performed by women. With a trial fund of $50,000 the job was begun. By the end of 1938 a section of underbrush had been cleared and 4,000 plants, of 12 varieties, purchased by WPA, had been set out. Propagation from these was begun im mediately. Another $100,000 WPA grant was made available later. The employees took pride in their work and some are still there. Today 40 acres have been cleared, with 25 devoted to azaleas. On them are 75,000 bloom ing plants and many thousands of cuttings. Visitors may wander over six miles of trails -a main path a mile in length from start to return, and five radiating walks. Other Flowers Bloom in Profusion In addition to azaleas, more than 5,000 rhododendrons,t vast quantities of camellias, Japanese iris, daffodils, and mountain laurel have been planted. An ultimate objective, in addition to improving and increasing the azalea display, is to build up impressive show ings of other varieties of blooms in other months of the year. Growing of Indian azaleas justified Mr. Heutte in his belief that delicate species would thrive outdoors the year round in Norfolk. Most Indian azaleas require greenhouse culti vation in cold weather. The Formosa clone (R. phoeniceum) shown in Plate I is more than 12 years old, and was one of the originals in the garden. It is five feet tall and about the same breadth. The Formosa (not named after the island) usually reaches a height of eight feet, but this one may exceed that size, for in the last few years its growth has been about a foot a year. The blooming Hinodegiri azaleas (R. ob tusum Hinodegiri) shown in Plate II belong to the Kurumes, a race introduced to culti vation in the eastern United States by the late Dr. E. H. Wilson, the famous plant hunter of Harvard University's Arnold Arboretum. In 1914, when Dr. Wilson was in Japan, he visited a nursery district near Tokvo where for the first time he saw these plants in dwarf forms, bearing flowers of many colors. Some of them were brought to the United States three years later at his direction. Across the water from the Hinodegiri in Plate VIII stands a bed of R. arnoldianum plants, cold-hardy hybrids developed in the Arnold Arboretum and by near-by Massa chusetts azalea enthusiasts. * See "Charleston, a Colonial Rhapsody," by B. Anthony Stewart, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, March, 1939. t Azaleas are classified as rhododendrons by bota nists, although their superficial differences are so prom inent that in gardens they are regarded as separate individuals. In L. H . Bailey's Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture all azaleas are listed under rhododen dron. For example, the torch azalea is listed as Rhododendron kaempferi.