Reaching up into the above-ground world, the scarlet wrists and fingers of a “Sarah Bernhardt” peony feel for the light and air, slowly twisting and wriggling as the new leaves unfold and then begin to grow. The much larger underground portion of the being we know as the peony mobilizes to fill its destined space in the photosphere, to revel in the flood of energy that the spring and summer will pour out onto the surface of the world. Collecting that energy and using it to drive the life processes that will feed the whole world is what drives the chlorophyll kingdom, and ultimately fuels us all.
Other underground beings are likewise recolonizing the airy world, fronds of the dainty oak fern slip up so delicately that one may swear they were not there the day before. They are a pale golden green, with the smaller segments still wrapped up by their stems; it is an emergence as delicate and exciting as watching a dragonfly split open its skin and slowly stretch its wings.
On every land surface, the life that was waiting out the winter is back, spreading a web of green and red and bright yellow, some even sending their flowers up before the leaves. Skunk cabbage, and pom pom primroses share this ability, forcing their flowers up through the soil. Lily of the valleys sharp tipped spirals are wrapped around sweet-smelling bells. As soon as they spear their way up, they begin unwrapping the clean white earrings of hanging buds and their already-colorful lungwort leaves, speckled or sleekly solid green.
Bleeding hearts, with their soft and frilly blue-gray webs of leaf flesh appear, rising out of the deadest looking dried butts of last season; driftwood sprouting leaves is no more astounding. So delicate and vulnerable do they appear that it’s hard to believe how vigorously they will occupy their space, and with what massive strength they will bloom, sporting hundreds of blossoms at once with sprays of pink and red jewels strung like lockets on gentle necklaces against their enchanting foliage. Once they are established where they like it, a bleeding heart can live for decades and get so large that a big dog could live under them and one would never know.
Irises like slivers of silver slide stealthily between overlapping leaves, claiming their areas, too. They seem to keep their buds secret between slender pages of leaf, only barely bulging where the closely-wrapped petals wait. The iris is brief in its flowering; the barely-formed and closely-concealed buds seem to split out of their protective sheaths and open to the light with a repeating rhythm that goes on for days, and for years, and for centuries.
The three dimensional ballet of leaf arrangement in the air zone echoes the underground arrangement — stems bending and leaves spiraling and stacking to get each available bit of light as roots, seeking the same space, intertwine and slide past each other in the soft darkness. Streams through a meadow undercut the bank and still the web of roots cantilever out over the rush, holding on and keeping the soil from washing away, too, Often this undercutting reveals the mass of white, twisted hair and twig that fills the life zone just under the surface.
Perennial flowers have the ability to explode into the upper world fully equipped, ready to look for pollinators and get to work doing what plants are meant to do, to make more. The myriad flower forms we treasure are only peripherally there for our eyes, they are the blinking, honking, aroma-spraying road signs advertising the delights that await hungry and thirsty travelers that buzz and dart about. The shapes and colors of these roadside attractions evolved along with their consumers, each striving to be just a little more attractive or seductive than their competitors and thus, gain a little more success in the reproduction game.
In the short spring and summer at high latitudes or altitudes, the plant strategies are similar — get up and get busy early, no waiting around. Gardeners appreciate the springtime burst of color and shape, and harness it in the creation of domestic pleasure spaces, recognizing it as the echo and repetition in miniature of the much larger dance, of the concert that is the whole underground world returning to the world above. How sweet it is, and how lucky we are to get to play in the same game with such skilled players.
• David Lendrum is a Juneau resident and longtime local gardener who, with his wife Margaret Tharp, has been in business for 30 years as Landscape Alaska. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.