Blooming cherry blossom trees are not the only signs of spring in the Washington, D.C. area. In Burke, a home lost in a jungle of blooming azaleas alerts Lee Chapel Road passersby that winter is history.
Homeowner Olivia Carson built the Burke home with her husband in 1938, when she was 18. Carson immediately began gardening on the sprawling property that same spring.
"Everyone out here had a garden back then," she said. "And we had enough land to have a small garden."
She grew a variety of plants and vegetables, and at one time even sold strawberries from her garden. Her daughter, Jan Carson, said her mother picked them all by hand. She followed that same trend with the azaleas too.
Her children, all of whom grew up in the house — one still lives there with her today — remember the yard and the garden as a centerpiece throughout the years, said Jan Carson.
One Mother’s Day, Olivia remembers that her husband gave her three azalea plants. She went outside and planted them, and said she "just fell in love." Azaleas are flowering shrubs and are part of the genus Rhododendron. The plant has thousands of varieties, which blooms in pink, red, yellow, white, purple and orange, among other colors, according to the Azalea Society of America. Olivia Carson’s yard resembles a rainbow of the flowers, with a different color springing out every few feet.
"It goes all the way around the house," said Olivia Carson.
THE COLORS are so vivid, and somewhat out of place, that people have stopped at her home throughout the years to comment on them. Kevin Morse, a Burke Centre resident, was one of them. He used to drive by on his way home from work, and always noticed the pop of color during his otherwise dull commute home.
"There was just shopping centers and strip malls and townhouses, then you make that turn then all of a sudden there would be this blaze of color," he said. "One day I pulled in and told her, ‘Hey, you’ve got a great yard.'"
But the property wasn’t always all flowers. It was once part of the federal government’s land acquisition to build Dulles airport. The feds came in and gave everyone in the neighborhood a down payment so they could move elsewhere, but the Carsons did not budge. They stuck it out, and when the government decided to build the airport in Chantilly instead, they had not been displaced. Many people had already moved, though, and Olivia said most of them did not return.
"It was really sad," she said.
A small portion of her property was affected by a road-widening project along Lee Chapel, though. When her children were growing up, Olivia Carson remembers that her home was not perched up on a hill as it is today. The yard and home were just about level with the road, sloping downward gradually. Her children used to sled down the west side of the home and end up stopping just near the road, which she said tells you it was not a big slope. Now it sits much higher than the road, since the Virginia Department of Transportation had to scoop out some of the land for the project. It took away from the front of the property a bit, she said, but she still had her garden and the azaleas continued to bloom.
Her yard looks as if she has hired professional landscapers to come in and design it, but it’s all her own handiwork, with the assistance of a neighborhood man who helped her with the upkeep throughout the years. Jan Carson said that she and her siblings saw that their mother "just had a vision."
"People would say, ‘How did you know where to plant them?’" said Olivia Carson.
For drivers staring at brake lights and concrete heading west on the road, Morse said it’s like a little oasis.
"It’s such a nice change of scenery after some of the bland suburbia that you come through," he said. "You have to admit, it all looks the same."