Article Copied from the American Rhododendron Society Blog

Print date: 4/17/2024

Norfolk Botanical Garden Azaleas

30 October 2017 @ 10:18 | Posted by Admin

The idea for the Norfolk Botanical Garden came from Thomas P. Thompson, Norfolk's first city manager, and Frederic Heutte, a young horticulturalist. Heutte had a fondness for azaleas and thought Norfolk had a climate uniquely suited for growing the plants. Thompson and Heutte believed that Norfolk could support an azalea garden to rival that found in Charleston, S.C., which even during the depression years drew thousands of tourists annually. The city of Norfolk provided Thompson and Heutte with a seventy-five acre section of high, wooded ground and another seventy-five acres of swampy land in the Little Creek Reservoir area to establish the garden.

Thompson, applied for a grant from the "Works Progress Administration" (WPA) to hire labor needed to turn a swamp full of loblolly pines and snakes into an azalea garden to border the new airport. Since most of the male labor force was at work with other projects for the city, a group of more than 200 African American women and 20 men were assigned to the Azalea Garden project. Laboring from dawn until dusk, the labor crew cleared dense vegetation and carried loads of dirt by hand to build a levee for the lake. The laborers were paid twenty-five cents an hour for their hard work. Within less than a year, a section of underbrush had been cleared and readied for planting. By March of 1939, four thousand azaleas, two thousand rhododendrons, several thousand miscellaneous shrubs and trees and one hundred bushels of daffodils had been planted.

To show the city's support for the Garden, the name was changed in 1955 from Azalea Garden to Norfolk Municipal Gardens. The city also selected Norfolk Municipal Gardens as the scenic backdrop for the International Azalea Festival, and for the annual festival that celebrates the member countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In 1958 the Old Dominion Horticultural Society took over maintenance of Norfolk Municipal Gardens and changed the name to Norfolk Botanical Garden. Today a garden visitor will find a quarter of a million azaleas on display!