JARS v64n1 - The Glenn Dale Azaleas: Part V

The Glenn Dale Azaleas: Part V
William C. Miller III
Bethesda, Maryland

Reprinted from The Azalean, Fall 2004

This is the fifth in a series of Glenn Dale articles originally published in THE AZALEAN , the journal of the Azalea Society of America (Vol. 26, No. 3, Fall 2004, pp.54-57). To briefly recap, the previous articles in this series presented information about the Plant Introduction Station at Glenn Dale, Maryland; the significance of the azaleas on the southern face of Mt. Hamilton at the United States National Arboretum; and my collaborative efforts with the late Dick West to share with others what we had learned about the 454 Glenn Dale hybrid azaleas. This fifth article is a derivative of the keynote presentation delivered on May 8, 2004 at the ASA National Meeting in Bowie, Maryland that was sponsored by the Ben Morrison Chapter. The article is a review of the life of Benjamin Yoe Morrison and an overview of the development of the Glenn Dale hybrids, with a brief mention of the Belgian-Glenn Dale and Back Acres hybrids for context.

Ben Morrison photographed 
on May 3, 1954 (left to right): Leamon Tingle; 
Andrew Adams, Sr.; H. H. Hume; David Leach; Albert Close; John Wister; and B. Y. Morrison
Fig. 1: Ben Morrison photographed on May 3, 1954,
during the dedication of the Morrison Garden at
the US National Arboretum.
USDA photo by Matthews
Fig. 5: Azalea notables at the dedication of the Morrison Garden
(left to right): Leamon Tingle; Andrew Adams, Sr.; H. H. Hume; David Leach;
Albert Close; John Wister; and B. Y. Morrison.
USDA photo by Matthews

The original article contained five images which are retained in this republication. The first image is a modification of a USDA photo taken at the dedication of the Morrison Garden at the United States National Arboretum on May 3, 1954. The second image, by the author, shows 'Morning Star' (center) and two pairs of sports that have only appeared once. Since self-colored cultivars are generally quite stable, this is as good an example as any that demonstrates the unpredictability of azalea behavior. The third and fourth images are of the Belgian-Glenn Dale 'Pink Ice' and the Back Acres 'Margaret Douglas' respectively and were obtained from Bob Stewart in Springfield, Virginia. The fifth and final image, like the earlier USDA image, is another photo taken at the 1954 dedication of the Morrison Garden. I particularly like this image because it shows many of Morrison's friends and colleagues (names that come up frequently in the Glenn Dale story) who were significant factors in what was then the larger horticultural community. With the recent passing of Dr. John L. Creech on August 7, 2009, few of Morrison's contemporaries remain today.

Fig. 2: Glenn Dale 'Morning Star' 
shown with two sports.
Fig. 2: Glenn Dale 'Morning Star' shown with two sports.
Photo by Bill Miller

For more information about Morrison, see The Search for the Real Benjamin Yoe Morrison, THE AZALEAN , Vol. 14, No. 3, September 1992, pp. 59-61. Another excellent resource is HYBRIDS AND HYBRIDIZERS by Philip A. Livingstone and Franklin H. West. Published by Harrowood Books, Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, it also has chapters on Dexter, Gable, Nearing, Shammarello, and is available from the JARS publication list. For detailed information about the Glenn Dale hybrids, the reader is referred to The Glenn Dale Azaleas (aka Agricultural Monograph No. 20) by B. Y. Morrison. The original version was issued in October 1953 by the U.S. Government Printing Office and was available from the Superintendent of Documents for 40 cents. Long out of print, it was reproduced in 1978 by Theophrastus Publishers, Little Compton, Rhode Island (no longer in business). Finally, in 1996, it was revised, expanded, and republished by Miller and (Dick) West. The Miller and West revision is the only version available commercially, and it corrects the few errors we discovered during our review of the working documents from the Glenn Dale Station files.

Back Acres 'Margaret Douglas' Belgian-Glenn Dale 'Pink Ice'
Fig. 4: Back Acres 'Margaret Douglas', a fine example of the colored border/lighter center
combination that characterizes many of the Back Acres hybrids.
Photo by Bob Stewart
Fig. 3: Belgian-Glenn Dale 'Pink Ice', one of five introductions from
16 finalists from 96 selections from 1200 seedlings.
Photo by Bob Stewart

Ben Morrison and his Azaleas
William C. Miller III
Bethesda, Maryland

Reprinted from The Azalean, Fall 2004, pp. 54-57

The Glenn Dale, Belgian-Glenn Dale, and Back Acres azaleas that we enjoy today are attributable to the vision and personal industry of one man, Benjamin Yoe Morrison. Born on September 25, 1891, in Atlanta, Georgia, the eldest child of Isabel and Lisle Morrison, Ben Morrison graduated from Central High School in Washington, DC, in 1909 where even at this early age his artistic ability and attention to detail were evident. The personal reference in his senior yearbook reads: "Benjamin is a Georgia cracker, a regular hot-headed Confederate from Atlanta, Georgia. You wouldn't think it to look at him but it is the truth. He is the best man in the class for grabbing E's, and he gets them because of his conscientious work. He has always been quiet, but he gets there just the same."

Morrison attended the University of California at Berkeley and graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a BS in Agriculture cum laude in 1913. He continued his studies at Harvard and received a Masters of Landscape Architecture in 1915. While it is noteworthy that Morrison' interest in azaleas developed prior to the commencement of the formal Glenn Dale project, as a trained horticulturist and a landscape architect who traveled to Japan in 1916 under a Sheldon Fellowship from Harvard, he could not have missed being impressed by the azalea component of springtime in Japan. During World War I, he served first in the US Army Medical Corps and later in the Sanitation Corps.

A Career Begins, Ends, and Resumes
In 1920, when he took a job as a Landscape Gardener (Scientific Assistant in Landscape Gardening) with the Bureau of Plant Industry of the United States Department of Agriculture, one of his activities was to conduct trials and tests of ornamental plants used in connection with landscape gardening. While the focus for this activity seems to have been chiefly roses and peonies, this placed Morrison in an organization that received all kinds of plant material from all over the world. Working for an agency whose mission was plant exploration and introduction, there was very little in the way of plant material to which he did not have access. Given all that, it would seem, however, that Morrison developed his azalea expertise on the side at his home in Takoma Park, Maryland, a northern Victorian suburb just across the District Line.

The Plant Introduction Station at Glenn Dale, Maryland, some 16 miles (26 km) northeast of Washington, DC, was established in 1920 by P. H. Dorsett on 70 acres (28 ha) of the Darrow and Woodworm farms. Dorsett was a noted plant explorer, after whom Dr. Eugene Hollowell named the popular fall blooming Rhododendron kaempferi 'Dorsett'*. The Plant Introduction Station at Glenn Dale, often referred to as Bell Station and now a Plant Quarantine Laboratory, was the receipt and entry point for a lot of interesting plant material from government plant explorers and foreign growers. To put this in perspective, the establishment of the station was two years after E. H. Wilson acquired "Wilson's Fifty" for the Arnold Arboretum.

In 1922, Ben Morrison considered pursuing a different career, resigned his position, and went to New York to study music. An excellent pianist with a "solo grade" voice, he told friends that music brought him much pleasure. For whatever reason, it did not work out, and he was reinstated in 1924 as an Assistant Landscape Architect. In fairly short order, he progressed through various transfers and promotions from Junior Horticulturist and Assistant Horticulturist in 1924 to Associate Horticulturist in 1926.

The bill establishing the US National Arboretum was signed by President Coolidge in 1927, Dr. Frederick V. Coville was appointed Acting Director in 1929, and Oliver Freeman was appointed Field Superintendent one year later.

Azalea Breeding Program Begins
In a document entitled "Report of Azalea Breeding July 1, 1928," that was found in the files at the Glenn Dale Station, Morrison mentioned that his personal collection included 'Indica Alba' (presently known as 'Indicum Album', a form of Rhododendron mucronatum ), 'Indica Rosea' (presently known as 'Indicum Roseum', allied to R. mucronatum and similar to 'Sekidera'), 'Indica Magnifica' (also allied to R. mucronatum and listed in the IRRC (International Rhododendron Register and Checklist) as 'Magnificum', which may be a synonym of 'Sekidera'), and various small-flowered forms that he concluded were hardier forms of the "Kurume azaleas." He was impressed with the hardiness of "Kampfer's azalea" [sic] and chose it as the seed parent for his first cross, R. kaempferi x 'Indica Alba' ('Indicum Album' according to the IRRC), seedlings of which bloomed for him for the first time in 1928.

Morrison's formal plan was to develop a race of large-flowered azaleas, resembling the Indian hybrids of Southern gardens, which would be well suited for landscape use in the Washington, DC, area. His approach was as simple as it was classic and involved crossing hardy species and garden forms of the period with the more tender but larger-flowering forms. In retrospect and noting that not all of the Glenn Dale hybrids have 3” or 4” flowers, one concludes that his "large-flower" goal sustained a modification as the project progressed.

His notes indicate that additional crosses, reciprocal crosses, and back crosses utilizing R. kaempferi , various Kurume hybrids, R. molle , R. simsii , R. poukhanense (now known as R. yedoense ), and his initial R. kaempferi x 'Indica Alba' ('Indicum Album' in the IRRC) hybrids were performed prior to the government project. Given his opportunities, his experience, and what we have learned about his characteristic attention to detail, it is not surprising that he would begin to develop a familiarity that would enable him to recognize parental characteristics in subsequent progeny.

In the introduction to Monograph 20, Morrison states that the official project was "set into motion on a serious scale" in 1929. Coincidently, this was the same year that R. Kent Beattie introduced his Kurume hybrids from Japan. Parenthetically, included with the Kurumes was the Satsuki hybrid that became George Harding's 'Oh My'. By this time Morrison had achieved the title of Senior Horticulturist and had been given the responsibility for the four field stations in Glenn Dale, Maryland; Miami, Florida; Chico, California; and Savannah, Georgia.

In an article for the University of Washington's Arboretum Bulletin, Morrison succinctly outlined his basic approach: "As a routine procedure, therefore, pollination was carried out very largely under glass, using potted specimens, grown under cool to cold conditions. The resulting seedlings were well cared for inside for two winters. All were planted out-of-doors in thick oak woodland with a slightly sloping terrain, in well-prepared soil that has always supported native ericaceous plants. Good care extended to watering for the first summer. After that time nature took over, and as was to be expected, there were many deaths, although not as many as we had been prepared to face." So, it was in 1930 that they began planting azalea seedlings in the "woods" at Glenn Dale. The hybridizing continued.

In 1937, Ben Morrison made his first selections for further study. With the death of Dr. Coville that same year, Ben Morrison was named Acting Director of the US National Arboretum, "without compensation and in addition to his other responsibilities." One can imagine how the administrative demands upon his time were ever increasing.

The years 1938 and 1939 saw the acquisition of the Chugai Satsuki introductions. 'Adzuma-no-hana' and 'Shinnyo-no-tsuki' were later used in the breeding program. The selection process continued in 1939, 1940, and 1941, which brought the total selections to 830. With the advent of World War II, however, all work with azaleas ground to a halt and Glenn Dale's and Morrison's attention turned to supporting the war effort. In fact, from October 1, 1943 to March 29, 1944 Ben Morrison was "transferred," reassigned, or loaned to the Office of Foreign Agricultural Relations, Latin American Division, in Bogota, Colombia, for the purpose of "making observations" on the Cinchona developments in Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Colombia, to determine how to best "collaborate in the production of complementary crops" (chiefly other sources of quinine).

After the war, Glenn Dale endeavored to pick up where it had left off. In memos for the record in 1946 and 1948, Ben Morrison documented that he was providing the station with azalea cuttings from his collection at home because it was easier to find them in his home garden than to hunt for them in the azalea plantings at Glenn Dale, which had suffered from a lack of care.

Morrison resumed the selection process in 1946 and continued to make selections until 1951. Post-war selections numbered 312, which brought the total number to 1,142.

After the war, much of Morrison's focus turned to the Arboretum. In 1947, an 8-acre (3.2 ha) tract of the southern face of Mount Hamilton was planted with Morrison's selected azaleas and work was begun for an "azalea display garden" that was to later be dedicated in his honor. In 1947 he also began the work that was to become known as the Belgian-Glenn Dale hybrids. For some reason he waited three years before he sought permission to undertake the project. It is fortunate that his proposal was approved, since he had plants in hand.

In 1948, John Creech came to the Glenn Dale Station. The azalea distribution process resumed and continued through 1954. Over the life of the official distribution process, it should be noted that 54 gardens, nurseries, and individuals in 19 states and the District of Columbia received shipments, though not all participated equally or were in the program from beginning to end. There were 12 recipients in 1942 and a high of in 33 in 1950. Overlook Nurseries in Mobile, Alabama (Sawada); Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, California; Fruitland Nurseries in Augusta, Georgia; Kingsville Nurseries in Kingsville, Maryland (Hohman); Tingle Nursery Company in Pittsville, Maryland; Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania (Wister); and the University of Washington Arboretum, in Seattle, Washington, were the only participants who received plant material every year. The final thought on the matter of the distribution of the Glenn Dale hybrid azaleas rests with the recognition that there was also an unofficial distribution process; that is, an unknown number of individuals, nurseries, and organizations (e.g., Milo Perkins) received plants now and then. This unofficial distribution may well account for the survival and existence of some of the Glenn Dale hybrids that were never formally distributed (e.g., 'Fenelon').

Plans for Retirement
It is evident that Morrison had been considering retirement for a number of years. In an April 18, 1949, memorandum to Robert M. Salter, Chief of the Bureau, he offered to withdraw his request for retirement to enter upon a new job. Morrison proposed that he be permitted to: 1) give up his responsibilities for the Division of Plant Exploration and Introduction; 2) focus full time on the Arboretum, the propagation and placement of the Glenn Dale Azaleas, planning the plantings for the Plant Industry Station; and, 3) be granted such leave without pay as might be requested. Morrison was acutely sensitive about what he perceived to be outside interference with regard to the Arboretum and made his displeasure known on more than one occasion with talk of retirement. My favorite remark along these lines is: "the democratic processes have so broadened the decisions that they lack all character." Morrison's proposal was approved, and effective July 1, 1949, he was assigned to the Arboretum full time.

Morrison's last several years prior to retirement had numerous periods of "leave without pay," which were invested in "personal business," both locally and in Pass Christian, Mississippi, where he eventually relocated, established a small nursery, pursued his interest in studying and hybridizing azaleas and eventually introduced the Back Acres hybrids, named after the family home of his friend, Ivan Anderson. Morrison's interest had turned to developing doubles and flowers with white eyes and colored borders, a logical extension of the Glenn Dale work. He also had become very interested in the Satsuki hybrids and had come to appreciate their potential impact on developing new and later-blooming cultivars.

In April of 1951, Ben Morrison was named Director of the National Arboretum after having served in an "acting" capacity for 14 years. Ironically, in November of that same year, he retired from federal service as a GS-14 Horticulturist, only to be rehired under a temporary 12-month appointment as a GS-13 Horticulturist consultant. Among other things, this arrangement permitted an orderly search for his successor. Dr. Henry T. Skinner was appointed the Director of the National Arboretum in September of 1952, and he benefited greatly from Morrison's counsel. It is unclear when Morrison actually moved to Pass Christian, Mississippi, full time. It was a gradual process over a number of years and involved many of the already mentioned periods of "unpaid leave."

By March 1953, the editing of the Monograph 20 manuscript had been completed and the finished product was issued in October. On May 3, 1954, before a large audience of friends and associates, the azalea clonal garden at the Arboretum was dedicated in Morrison's honor.

Morrison's Legacy

One might be tempted to think that the story of the 454 Glenn Dale hybrids, the 16 Belgian-Glenn Dale hybrids, and the 53 Back Acres hybrids ends with the publication of Monograph 20, the conclusion of the formal distribution process after Morrison's death in 1966, or even with the passage of sufficient time, but that is certainly not realistic. Morrison was a prolific writer, and much of his personal correspondence and many of his drawings provide additional insight into the behavior and performance of his azaleas. Because new chapters are being written as succeeding generations of hobbyists and professionals alike rediscover the variety of color, shape, and size that characterizes Morrison's azaleas, his legacy will continue as long as there is an appreciation for beauty.

* = not registered.

William C. Miller III
William C. Miller III is a recipient of the Society's Distinguished Service Award and the Brookside Gardens Chapter's Frederic P. Lee Commendation. He is a past president of the Brookside Gardens Chapter, a former vice president of the Society, a past member of the ASA board of directors, co-chairman of the ASA's membership committee and chairman of the public information committee, a long-time ASA member, and a frequent contributor to The Azalean.