Magnolia Gardens

Azalea cuttings from the National Arboretum, bred from Magnolia Plantation azaleas like these, will rejoin hundreds of thousands of plants now at the plantation gardens.

Tom Johnson heads to the National Arboretum today to save some cuttings of Lowcountry history.

The azaleas will be from the prized Glenn Dale collection bred by former arboretum Director Ben Morrison in the 1940s, crossbreeds developed with cuttings from a type of Belgian indica azaleas at Magnolia Plantation. Johnson, the plantation's gardens director, is bringing them back to their roots. From the Magnolia greenhouse, the propagated azaleas will be planted in 30 other public and private gardens across the country.

Less than a year ago, these azaleas were doomed.

"These are some of our children and grandchildren," Johnson said. "We have learned it's really scary to have one plant in (only) one location."

Plant species can be devastated by any number of threats, including insects, diseases and natural disasters. These azaleas were about to be axed by budget cuts. The U.S. Department of Agriculture planned to pull them out and burn the stumps, as part of a cutback in operations at the Washington arboretum.

They were saved, for a while at least, by a public outcry of horticultural groups who understood their significance, then by an anonymous $1 million donation establishing an endowment. Among those who made that outcry was Scott Aker, the arboretum horticulture director.

"With things the way things are with the federal government, whether or not we're going to be able to take care of these (azaleas) is in question," Aker said. The Magnolia effort distributing the plants "is very important to us, so all the eggs are not in one basket. A plant is lost forever when it's lost."

The azaleas are among 10,000 that Morrison planted 65 years ago. Aker estimates that about 3,000 are left. Ironically, a lot of the others were lost because of staff cutbacks during budget cuts in late 1980s and early 1990s.

How many will be given to Magnolia isn't a given -- only 500 have been approved for this trip. A few hundred is routine, said Colien Hefferan, arboretum director. "Whether one garden would be able to take thousands of cuttings is something we'll have to talk about."

Not only was Morrison the arboretum's first director, he was in the forefront of propagating species of what historically had been considered a common man's plant.

The azaleas are among some 60,000 now at the arboretum. In the commercial horticulture world, they have a fatal flaw: Morrison's records for them have been lost. The azaleas do not have names and are unsourced -- nobody really knows what each one is or where its cuttings came from.

"They have 'no value,' " Johnson said. "Taxonomists are like economists. They see the world in a very narrow view."

That doesn't decrease their value to Magnolia or the garden community worldwide, he said. The azaleas are among the "old ones," considered to be the most valuable of any plant species because their DNA might carry genes that could resist insects or diseases that kill more contemporary plants.

And, "they are Ben Morrison's life and legacy. That should not be arbitrarily lost to budget cuts," Johnson said. He is among four Magnolia staffers who will make the trip. The Norfolk Botanical Gardens curator from Virginia also will take plants to propagate at that site.

Along with thousands of other azaleas, the group will cut from private collections in the Washington area, the Morrison plants will make their way back to the Magnolia gardens among hundreds of thousands of other azaleas.

Morrison hybrid-bred the original Magnolia azaleas to be more tolerant to mid-Atlantic cold, but Johnson is confident that at least 80 percent will survive in the shaded plantation gardens where camellias thrive.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or follow him on Twitter at @bopete.