The first glimpses of spring 2003

Posted: Wednesday, April 02, 2003

There is nothing as exciting as another spring, bursting open the grave, returning life to the sere and frozen world, and the emergence of the early blooming perennials. Long before leaves on tree or shrub, before seed can sprout or even grass turn green, the earliest perennials are sending up their flowering stalks to take advantage of any opportunity to get a leg up on the competition. There are flowers that open at ground zero, as they pierce the sky-bordering soil. They're open for business and we know what their business is.

David Lendrum is a master gardener and owner of Landscape Alaska. Responses or questions can be sent to

Perennials are what our country is all about. This land has eight trees, about twenty shrubs, no annuals and thousands of hardy perennials. The whole ecosystem is based on plants that grow up during the summer, harvest the energy of the sun, make sugars and turn them to starch, make flowers into seeds or spores, and when their year's labors are done, retreat back to the safe dark underground.

These are the perennials, and we look at the garden catalogs, or walk through the nursery, or visit our friends yards looking at the bleeding hearts, or primroses or Shasta daisies and think of them as garden flowers. The reality of their lives is that they are the native inhabitants of places like this. They evolved to survive and reproduce in harsh, lush, dangerous and delightful niches like Southeast Alaska.

We take our cues from nature, trying to fit our desires into the criteria of our environment, and in so doing, make our gardens mesh with the wild world. The era of tightly pruned cones on 10-foot centers passed with the Three Musketeers. We don't have the leisure to spend trimming exactly as we wish or the wealth to support an army of skilled artisans keeping our grounds perfectly in order. Our modern world demands gardens that will thrive with the climate, get better each year, and give us some extra pieces we can trade or share with our friends.

We spent a great deal of time this week looking at our collection of perennials arising from their winter dormancy. We have more than 6,000 canned perennials and the excitement they generate as the various species emerge is physical. Many of our friends came by and there was much ooohing and ahhhing as the flowering tips were compared and some exciting chatter as the newer members of the collection were pointed out.

The new site we are building, along the edge of the highway in Vintage Park, is sunnier than our older place. I think we will be seeing a lot earlier appearance of the flowers there. We also have brought in several new species that are early bloomers and extremely hardy. They can bloom while the ground is still frozen and a few snow flurries don't seem to faze them.

The prettiest ones are the hellebores, both Christmas roses and Lenten roses and some new hybrids. The fat flowering stalks are pushing up out of the containers already, and the first part up is the blossom. These are big buds and when they open they are big flowers too, pale colors with contrasting splotches of purple or deep red and some are shiny green with deep pink spots. The leaves are thick; tough, and shiny deep green, surface texture is slick and shiny. They are altogether lovely and unusual.

Older favorites are always treasured, and peonies are at the top of the list. Their deep pink buds are just arising from Stygian depths, poking like blunt fingertips through the dark soil, giving little hint of the glorious foliage they will become. The flowering parts are so separate from the leaves that they seem extraterrestrial, but the real richness of the garden peoney is in the bulk and richness of her foliage.

Lungworts, shooting stars, and obedience plants are there, monkshoods, delphiniums and hostas emerge, but the queen of the spring perennials, the gray-green frilly, aristocratic columbine reigns supreme in her early spring glory. So cool, so calm and so much like Audrey Hepburn, these tender tips have the elegant long necks and strong, slender shoulders of the most beautiful form we have ever seen.

This is the time to get inspired. Get your face down close to the best part of the gardening year and have a good look, sniff really deeply, because this is the time of great treasure. It won't come again until next year, so dig it while you can.

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