QBARS - v22n2 B. Y. Morrison and His Azaleas

B. Y. Morrison and His Azaleas
Frederic P. Lee, Bethesda, Md.

B.Y. Morrison, USDA plant breeder
Fig. 14.  B. Y. Morrison, retired USDA plant breeder,
responds to speech of Assistant Secretary of Agriculture J.
Earl Coke in ceremonies at the National Arboretum May 3,
1954.  At that time the azalea garden in the Arboretum was
was dedicated to Mr. Morrison and named in his honor.
Photo by Matthews, courtesy U.S. National Arboretum

The story of B. Y. Morrison's azalea breeding work accounts for only a small part of his horticultural life. Following undergraduate studies at the University of California he was graduated from Harvard University in 1915 with a degree in landscape architecture and engaged in private practice of his profession for a short time.

After World War I Morrison became an assistant of David Fairchild in the plant introduction work of the United States Department of Agriculture and later was head of the Division of Plant Exploration and Introduction for 14 years. From 1937 to 1951 he was acting director or director of the United States National Arboretum.

But Morrison's horticultural activities were not confined to the Government or to azaleas. For his work in connection with daffodils he received the Peter Barr Memorial Cup of the Royal Horticultural Society and the Gold Medal of the American Daffodil Society. He wrote a Government bulletin on iris and did some breeding of iris in the 20's, receiving the Distinguished Service Medal of the American Iris Society. He edited that Society's Bulletin and served as its secretary for many years. Morrison was a specialist in bulbs as, for example, lycoris, species daffodils, and zephyranthes. Few garden plants escaped his attention.

The most extensive of Morrison's non-governmental activities was his editorship of the American Horticultural Magazine for 37 years, and he was a principal founder of the American Horticultural Society and at one time its President. Its Gold Medal and Liberty Hyde Bailey Medal were awarded him.

The varied scope of Morrison's horticultural activities were recognized by the presentation to him of the Veitch Gold Medal of the Royal Horticultural Society, the Arthur Hoyt Scott Horticultural Medal and Award, and the Sarah Fife Memorial Trophy of the Garden Club of America.

Most recent recognition of his contributions has come from the government agency in which he worked for so many years. Secretary of Agriculture Orville L. Freeman has announced the first of a series of B. Y. Morrison Memorial lectures to be delivered by individuals chosen for their significant contributions to the science or practice of ornamental horticulture. Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson has accepted nomination for delivery of the first lecture at a time and place to be determined.

Morrison was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1891 and died in 1966.

Glenn Dale Hybrids

Despite all these fields of interest, the time given to his many horticultural articles and drawings, and his avocation of music which included serving as soloist for several choirs and the occasional giving of voice lessons, Morrison found time to engage in the breeding of evergreen azaleas on a scale unequalled by any one man. The Mt. Hamilton hillside at the National Arboretum in Washington was planted years ago with probably over 70,000 azalea plants. While these include some of the 400-odd named Glenn Dales, they are in great part composed of plants that Morrison considered good enough for a large hillside display but not good enough to be named and distributed as Glenn Dale Hybrids. No one knows how many other seedlings of the project were discarded. Over 28,000 visitors have viewed the Mt. Hamilton display on a single spring day, and yet, because these plants were mostly unnamed seedlings, Morrison would not permit the National Park Service to take cuttings and propagate them for Washington city parks decoration. He wanted to avoid a flood of new azaleas named by unscrupulous plant lifters.

With the Glenn Dale Hybrids Morrison sought to meet the problem of having flowers as large as those of the Southern Indian azaleas (Indicas) but plants cold hardy further north in the Middle Atlantic states. He also desired plants whose different blooming periods would provide flowers from mid-April to mid-June and particularly fill in the mid-May blooming gap in that area. The parents were many. They included clones from many species and hybrid groups in subseries Obtusum Indica Azalea ( indicum ), and various forms of indicum , and the Chugai Nursery Company selections from the Satsuki azaleas; Kaempfer Azalea ( kaempferi ) and Kaempferi (Malvatica) Hybrids, mainly clones 'Alice', 'Louise', and 'Willy', also Malvatica of unknown origin; Sims Azalea ( simsi ) and 'Vittati Fortunei'; Indica Alba ( mucronatum ) and var. lilacinum ; Kurume Hybrids and 'Amoena'; Maxwell Azalea ( phoeniceum var. calycinum f. maxwelli ); Dawson Hybrid cl. 'Hazel Dawson'; Southern Indian Hybrids cls. 'Modele', 'Madame Margottin', and 'Miltoni'; the Korean Azalea ( poukhanense ); and others.

The exact parentage of each selection together with its official description is to be found in Agriculture Monograph No. 20, The Glenn Dale Azaleas published in 1953 and in The Azalea Book , 2nd ed. (1965), pages 312-354.

Saved during the latter part of the project the trays were planted and the seedlings raised by Morrison as a private undertaking, in a garden with a glassed over pit maintained by him near his home in Takoma Park, Maryland. Seedlings or cuttings were transferred to the Plant Introduction Station at Glenn Dale, Maryland. Also some of the small plants were set out at the National Arboretum. After selection and naming of a particular plant it was propagated and distributed to azalea growers by the Station - hence the name of the group, Glenn Dale Hybrids. Later on all the work on the project was done at Glenn Dale, with some of the later seedlings also being planted out at the National Arboretum awaiting selection.

While 400-odd new azaleas on first thought seems overwhelming, they are best regarded as about 12 groups of around 10 to 40 plants each. These smaller groups are based on blooming period - early, early midseason, late midseason, and late - and on habit - low, medium, and tall. In each smaller group there is a large range of colors together with patterns where the flower is striped, sanded or wedged a color differing from the ground color ("the peppermint candy sticks"), or has a different color throat or margin, or eyes.

Forty Glenn Dales chosen at random work out as follows and illustrate the point:

Low - white, 'Cygnet'; pink, 'Refulgence';
Medium - red, 'Red Bird'; pink margin, white throat, 'Caress'; pale rose pink, 'Allure'; purple, 'Viking';
Tall - white, partially petaloid sepals, 'Samite'; pink throat, white margin, 'Dayspring'; red striped white, 'Cinderella'; light red, hose-in-hose, 'Ballet Girl'; pink, 'Modesty'; purple, 'Burgundy'.
Low - scarlet ruffled, 'Wildfire';
Medium - white, 'Glacier'; red, 'Galathea'; pink, 'Cathay'; purple, 'Zulu';

Tall - white with red stripes, 'Yeoman'; purple, 'Nocturne'.

Low - white, 'Helen Close'; white, frilled, 'Polar Sea'; white, semi-double, 'Carrara'; white margin, red throat, 'Surprise'; pink, 'Coral Sea'; purple, 'Dauntless'; purple or white striped purple, 'Memento';
Medium - white, striped purple, 'Antique'; white, 'Safrano'; pink, 'Crinoline' and 'Louise Dowdle'; brownish purple, 'Kobold'; purple, 'Chanticleer'; purple margin white throat, frilled, 'Boldface';
Tall - very pale pink, 'Grace Freeman'.
Low - red margin, white throat, 'Aztec'; pink, 'Stunner' and 'Fountain';
Medium - red , 'Copperman'; pink, frilled, 'Lillie Maude'; pink, 'Juneglow' and 'Epilogue';

Tall - white, 'Snowscape'.

Roy Magruder, collaborator, National Arboretum, has a special interest in completing the Arboretum's collection of Glenn Dale Hybrids and revising the official descriptions made in 1952 mostly from plants that then had not reached maturity. The problem of accurate descriptions is complicated by the fact that some of the clones are prone to produce sports, particularly those having in their parentage 'Vittata Fortunei' or one of the satsukis. With some clones a single plant may produce two different self-colored flowers as well as flowers of different color patterns, such as wedges, stripes, or sanding on a ground of another color.

The Glenn Dale Hybrids meet Morrison's objectives of large flowers (some up to 4½" wide), hardy in the Middle Atlantic states area. They are of course hardy further south in the Gulf regions, and many of the plants are grown there. How hardy the hybrids may be north of Washington, D.C., or zone 7 is disputed. Some growers have claimed success as far as New Jersey and Rhode Island. In general the Glenn Dales are as hardy as most Kurume Hybrids.

Back Acres Hybrids

When Morrison retired from government service in 1951 he moved his garden operations from Takoma Park, Maryland to Pass Christian, Mississippi, on the pecan farm of his friend, Ivan Anderson. There Morrison continued his work with the Glenn Dale hybrids, particularly to the end of producing late blooming clones that had double flowers or flowers with a white or light throat and margin of another, but darker, color. The name of the farm, Back Acres, was applied to these hybrids. The first Back Acres Hybrids were introduced in 1964 through the Tingle Nursery of Pittsville, Maryland. Around 40 selections were made. At the time of Morrison's death in 1966 there were many seedlings on hand, and some tentative selections had been made from them. These plants, it is understood, are in the hands of a Georgia grower and may later appear on the market.

Belgian Glenn Dale Hybrids

Another off-shoot of the Glenn Dale Hybrids were the Belgian Glenn Dales. Crosses were made in 1947, and after Morrison's retirement the plants were carried on by John L. Creech, present chief of the New Crops Research Branch, U. S. Department of Agriculture, and in charge of its plant introduction work. Some 96 selections were given trials, and of these five were introduced in 1962: 'Bayou', 'Green Mist', 'Petite', 'Pink Ice', and 'Whitehouse'. They are crosses of a Belgian Indian hybrid and Glenn Dale Hybrid cl. 'Treasure'. Presumably this group is less hardy than the Glenn Dale Hybrids and would not be suitable in areas north of Zone 7b.


Satsuki azaleas are a group developed in Japan over a 300 year period and are derived, it is believed, from the species indicum, Sweet, and eriocarpum , Nakai. It is claimed that a very few are hybrids in which one of the Belgian Indian hybrids was a parent. In general the Satsukis are late blooming, average lower in height than azaleas in many of the other groups, are hardy as far north as Zone 7, and are vigorous in their production of sports. Flowers of as many as a half dozen color patterns are not infrequently found on a single plant. They are in general slower growers than most azaleas, and a few clones are very dwarf or creeping.

In 1938 and 1939 Morrison arranged for the Plant Introduction Section of the Department of Agriculture to bring in from the Chugai Nursery Company and introduce some 53 different Satsuki clones. After his retirement to Pass Christian Morrison resumed his interest in Satsukis and, with the assistance of Kaname Kato in Japan, brought in large numbers of Satsukis and grew them at Pass Christian. With the aid of photographs and descriptions from Kato, Morrison was engaged in determining correct names, transliterations of the Japanese symbols, and descriptions of the plants as grown in the United States. Around 100 of Morrison's descriptions of Satsukis, as grown at Pass Christian, appear in The Azalea Book , 2nd ed. (1965), pages 284-304. With the Japanese the Satsukis are the most popular group of azaleas, particularly for Bonsai. At the time of his death in 1966 Morrison contemplated a breeding project with these azaleas, a few of which he had used in connection with the Glenn Dale and Back Acres Hybrids, as well as the writing of a monograph on the Satsukis. Morrison's collection of Satsukis, the only large one in this country, has now been dispersed. It is believed that it numbered around 200 different named clones and that a grower in Georgia and another in Virginia have some of Morrison's plants. It is to be hoped that ultimately they will appear on the market.

During the course of correspondence with Mr. Lee about this article the Editor raised certain questions the answers to which he thought would be of interest. The questions reached Mr. Lee after he had prepared the article and he answered them in a letter of March 6, 1968. With the author's permission the questions and answers are printed as an addendum to the article.


Your letter raises a number of questions. The best I can do in the way of answers is as follows:

  1. Have any of the clones disappeared? I do not know precisely, but Roy Magruder at the National Arboretum has been able to collect all the named Glenn Dale hybrids except a very few, in order to complete the Arboretum's collection. Roy is out of town until the middle of April, so I can not give you the precise number, but as a guess it was around four or five. In consequence the number that have disappeared has at most been no more than four or five, and I believe Roy has hopes of locating these.
  2. Are there some named varieties of Glenn Dales that were never actually distributed? Again I do not know precisely. There are a very few-around a half dozen-that were never formally distributed by the Glen Dale Plant Introduction Station to nurserymen as were the others. However, these were distributed to a few individuals, and I believe Roy Magruder has all of these in the Arboretum's collection. I won't be able to find out with precision until his return.
  3. Are there any that bare developed undesirable traits? It depends upon what you call undesirable. I don't happen to care much for the "peppermint candy"-striped flowers, but I find many gardeners who have an especial liking for them. Some plants grow larger than the heights given by Ben in his original descriptions, and perhaps for this reason would not be desirable for the 60x120 ft. lot. Nevertheless they are fine plants in an appropriate location. As stated in the manuscript, many of the plants sport regularly, so as to have several different flower color designs on the same plant. This makes it difficult to describe the flowers of the plant. But it is a characteristic that I have found, although to a much less extent, not only in the Southern Indian azaleas but even in old Kurumes. The Japanese particularly prize these plants. I really do not know of any Glenn Dale hybrids with undesirable traits as, for instance, poor flowers, or diseases of the particular clone, or unusual difficulty in growing.
  4. Are there certain varieties which resemble each other so closely that there is hardly need for both of them? The answer to this is probably yes, but as I pointed out in the manuscript many of these plants with similar flowers are plants that have a different habit, or bloom during a different period. It will be two or three years before Roy Magruder's data on the plants at the Arboretum are completed and a fair judgment could be made as to varieties that too closely resemble each other.
  5. What are the varieties that seem particularly desirable to you? I am no good at this sort of thing. Most plants seem good to me if they grow and do a job. However, in the Azalea Book, 2nd ed., pp. 365-368 are a number of azaleas listed by Stuart Armstrong, former president of the American Horticultural Society, as being his idea of the best azaleas. Among them are a very large number of Glenn Dales, classified by color. On pp. 361-363 of the same book are a number of azaleas that I recommended for zones 7, 8, and 9a, and again a considerable number of Glenn Dales are mentioned.
  6. Would you discuss critically a few of the varieties which you feel would be especially useful? I'm not too sure what you have in mind. If you think it necessary I could mention some with unusual flower designs, some that bloom late and some that bloom early, and some that are low growing, late, are dense, and have branches that sweep down to the ground.

This is the first story to appear in the A. R. S. Bulletin concerning Mr. Morrison and his very extensive azalea breeding program. We are greatly indebted to Mr. Lee, holder of the A. R. S. Gold Medal, author of "The Azalea Book" (2 editions), and who has been familiar with this work for many years, for his account of Morrison and his azaleas. We would be glad to have, for future issues of the Bulletin, comments from persons who have grown these azaleas under different climatic and soil conditions. Such comments should be especially useful to the gardener who wants only a very few plants and may be dismayed by the very large number available from which he must make his choice.

- Ed.