TALES OF TAKOMA: Hort Club turns 100

The Takoma Horticultural Club in the Takoma Park 2015 Independence Day Parade. Photo by Bill Brown.

by DIANA KOHN

On March 1, 1916, a group of early Takoma settlers—nearly all connected to the federal Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville—organized the first meeting of the Takoma Park Horticultural Improvement Club. Their goal to “promote horticultural improvement throughout Takoma Park and vicinity” was part of the wider garden club movement begun in 1904 with the founding of the Philadelphia Garden Club.

The club immediately began implement the ambitious list of programs it had laid out in its constitution.

By April 1916, the first flower show, featuring narcissus, was staged at the Takoma DC library. Dahlia, rose, tulip and iris shows quickly followed, establishing a tradition that lasted until 1999. Over the next several decades on the early 20th century, these shows were expanded to include much more than flowers. Fruits, vegetables, houseplants, artistic arrangements, and even garden plots were awarded prizes. Some years there were as many as nine shows, each with hundreds of classes of entries, and many entrants per class. The huge volunteer effort required to cultivate, assemble, and judge these shows eventually outgrew the volunteer base.

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Montgomery County Councilmember George Leventhal, Takoma Park City Councilmember Peter Kovar, and City Manager Suzanne Ludlow join the Takoma Horticultural Club members at the Centennial Garden groundbreaking Nov. 12, 2016. Photo by Kathy Jentz.

In the summer of 1916, the Club launched its first co-operative buying venture when a duplicate shipment of “unusually fine bulbs” from Holland arrived at the Department of Agriculture by mistake. The fledgling Club put up $600 to purchase the entire order, thereby cementing an arrangement with the Dutch company that lasted more than 50 years. Many of the bulbs growing in Takoma today are descendants of these original bulbs. Bulb sales remain a key component of Club activities.

During both world wars, the club stressed the importance of growing vegetables and saving seeds. Members created a community garden and encouraged all residents, especially children, to join the effort.

Over the years, the club has also conducted yearly plant exchanges (still going on) and offered landscaping advice both in person and via books and newsletters (and now online) to help beautify home gardens and city parks. One club president, Wilbur Youngman, was garden editor at the Washington Star and frequently mentioned Takoma Park in his columns. His series of gardening books (1944-1976) was tailored to the local region.

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THC Club logo t-shirts and totes circa 2006. 

Two early presidents extended their influence well beyond Takoma Park.

Margaret Caldwell Lancaster, elected in 1926, was first woman to serve as president. She reached out to nearby communities, fostering new clubs, organizing the National Capital Area Federation of Garden Clubs, and spearheading the formation of the influential National Council of State Garden Clubs.

Benjamin Yao Morrison served briefly as president in 1925 before turning his attention to his landmark work with azaleas. Already lauded for his breeding of irises and daffodils, much of it centered at home in his Takoma Park garden, he began hybridizing azaleas at the Department of Agriculture’s Glenn Dale Experimental Station in Beltsville.

During World War II, the station turned its focus to the war effort, and Morrison transferred the bulk of his azaleas to Takoma Park, asking neighbors to offer their gardens as space for his experiments. A few of them still remain in local yards.

Over 25 years, he created an array of 454 distinct varieties–combining the large, colorful blossoms native to Asia with the winter-hardy qualities native to local climates. Glenn Dale azaleas became a popular choice with landscapers everywhere.

By 1937, Morrison was also placed in charge of designing the National Arboretum (where the 10 acres of his azaleas are still showcased). At the same time he served as editor and primary illustrator for the National Horticultural Magazine.

So it is no surprise that in the 1960s, a movement arose in Takoma Park to create an “Azalea City.” Club members joined with the city-appointed Azalea Committee to donate and plant thousands of azaleas in public parks and private gardens. One member in particular, Clarence Casey, from his post at Public Works, nurtured over 15,000 azalea cuttings for free distribution to residents and for city use, helping to create a legacy still visible today.

As part of the celebration of its 100th anniversary this year, the Hort Club is planting a Centennial Garden at the corner of Piney Branch Road and Philadelphia Avenue (see story). Among the features that commemorate the work of Club members past and present will be a bench in honor of Clarence Casey and his wife Catherine.

More details of the Hort Club’s 100 years can be found at takomahort.org, in a year-long series of articles under “Past Newsletters.”

About the Author

Diana Kohn
Diana Kohn is president of Historic Takoma, Inc., which is dedicated to preserving and celebrating the heritage of both Takoma Park MD and DC. Diana is co-author of Images of America: Takoma Park, a photo history of the town.