Revisiting Virginia's Horticultural History
           Frederick Heutte: A Legacy of Beauty

[reprinted from & with permission of Virginia GARDENER Magazine, 2004 The Team Advertising and Publishing, Inc., 106 W. Alabama Avenue, Ruston, LA 71270 ~ The article appeared in the May 2004 edition, pages 14-16.]

Revisiting Virginia's Horticultural History
Frederic Heutte: A Legacy of Beauty

One of the most beautiful places in Virginia is Norfolk Botanical Garden, 155 acres of stunning vistas, remarkable gardens, peaceful natural areas, and dazzling water views. J. Robert Stiffler, The Virginian-Pilot gardening columnist for nearly 30 years, credits its splendor to one man.

"The botanical garden is Fred Heutte's legacy to Norfolk. It was his idea, and he pulled a lot of strings with city council and city managers to make it happen," Stiffler said.

Beyond the beauty of the garden, Heutte contributed to the beauty of Norfolk. Peggy Haile McPhillips, Norfolk historian, wrote:

"Heutte saw the entire city as a garden and worked to make it as beautiful florally as any in the South. Today, his legacy can be viewed throughout Norfolk... The rows of crape myrtles lining our streets with color all summer long are the result of a 1937 campaign on Ballentine Boulevard by Heutte, who went door-to-door urging residents to join his plan for beautifying his city."

Heutte was a visionary, a man able to see beyond the day's details. When Norfolk became his adopted city, he dedicated himself to making it one of the most beautiful cities in the country. He considered Norfolk an ideal gardening spot.

In a speech to the Torch club in 1963, Heutte said, "Those of us who are so fortunate as to live here, are in a climactic zone second to none along the Eastern Seaboard where sub-tropical and temperate zones meet, and the potential flora unlimited."


Heutte was born in France at the end of the 19th century. In the early 1900s, his mother, an American, convinced the family to return to her homeland. They settled on Long Island on a private estate which made an indelible impression on the young Heutte. His early childhood memories included beautiful gardens filled with flowers. These gardens ultimately became his inspiration, leading him to pursue a career in horticulture. Heutte's horticulture knowledge was largely self-learned. He dropped out of school at 15, finding his way to an apprenticeship with one of New York City's largest florists. The shop owner encouraged him to get training in horticulture by working on an estate, one of the few ways to learn the trade without going to an agricultural college. So he came full circle, returning to Long Island where his family had originally settled, to begin his first job on the estate of H.W. Deforest.

While serving in the U.S. Army during World War I, Heutte was stationed in the Canal Zone in Panama. Even there he looked for ways to beautify his surroundings and ended up planting hibiscus. The company commander honored him with the title of "company gardener."

Following his return to the states he became a U.S. citizen in 1918 and returned to gardening. During the Depression when estate gardeners became a luxury and work was difficult to find, he made his way to Virginia, ultimately arriving in Norfolk.


Thomas P. Thompson, city manager from 1935 to 1938, is credited with the idea of developing an azalea garden in Norfolk. He envisioned that such a garden would attract thousands of tourists each year and could rival those found in Charleston, S.C. As part of the planning process he contacted noted Virginia landscape architect Charles F. Gillette. In a letter to Thompson, Gillette concurred "that a great many people will come to see your azalea gardens."

In 1936, Thompson hired Heutte as the city's first Superintendent of Parks and Forestry, a decision that linked Norfolk and Heutte through the creation of Azalea Gardens. In an article "The Story of a Garden's Beginning," Heutte reflected, "As one of my first assignments ... in September 1936, I was instructed by Mr. Thompson to locate a promising site for such a garden among the city's watershed properties."


Two years later, in September 1938, work began on the garden. The federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided the initial funds of $76,278 for the azalea garden project. The WPA was part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal designed to provide jobs for hundreds of people who were out of work during the Depression.

Heutte served as the project director, coordinating the efforts of 200 African women and 20 African American men. They cleared the original 25 acres, planted 4,000 azaleas provided by a local nursery, and created the first mile of walking trails.

Twenty-one years later, Heutte made the case to develop the azalea garden as a botanical garden. He enlisted support from the City of Norfolk and Old Dominion Horticultural Society (which later became the Norfolk Botanical Garden Society).


As a gardener, one of the memorable moments for Heutte came when his work as a horticulturalist was nationally recognized. He secured a scion of a rare camellia, Camellia granthamiana, from Hong Kong, asking the garden's superintendent to graft it onto a sasanqua camellia. It bloomed for the first time in the United States at the Norfolk Botanical Garden in 1959.

The stage was set for the National Arboretum to offer it as an introduction.

Camellia granthamiana is not hardy in this area. It is an ideal container plant with large (five to six inches), white, slightly fragrant blooms. One tree remains in the wild in Hong Kong, making this a very rare camellia. Norfolk Botanical Garden plans to reintroduce this camellia into the collection and hopes to offer a limited number for sale in the near future.


Fred Heutte confided that he did not want to be honored with plaques; he wanted a living memorial. His wish was granted when the Friends of Fred Heutte Foundation was formed in 1980. Housed in a building located in the heart of Norfolk's historic Ghent neighborhood, the foundation carries Heutte's vision for beautification into the 21st century.

On less than an acre, the Heutte Center showcases the landscape design of Virginia Beach landscape architect Craig Siska. It features four distinct gardens: a perennial garden, water garden, herb knot garden, and heirloom vegetable garden. (FHC editor's insert: a shade garden was added in early fall 2004) With no fence enclosing it, the center's gardens are open to all visitors.


Heutte wanted to inspire others to garden. He accomplished this, in part, through his prolific writing. For years, he authored a column in The Virginian-Pilot/Ledger Star titled "Weeder's Digest." He wrote regular newsletters for the Norfolk Botanical Garden dispensing "how-to" gardening advice for Tidewater Virginia.

Two years before his death in 1979, he published a book destined for every serious gardener's bookshelf: Gardening in the Temperate Zone. In a month-by-month diary, he confided with the reader, sharing his secrets for gardening, favorite plants, and tips for good horticultural practices.


Heutte passed away July 29, 1979. The previous month Dr. James Sweeney, a professor at Old Dominion University, conducted a final interview with him. Sweeney asked, "Looking back over your long and distinguished career, what do you regard as your most outstanding achievement?" Heutte responded, "I would say that my ability to have been able to interest other people into [the horticulture] field is possibly the most that I've done."

Ann Parsons is director of education and grant programs at Norfolk Botanical Garden. She is currently coordinating the botanical Garden's plans to become listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register.

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