Hitting the rhodies, a sign of spring

Landscaping in Alaska

Posted: Friday, April 25, 2003

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

Like Santa in the spring, I come back to Juneau trailing a bag of goodies 1,000 miles behind me. I carry rhododendrons fat with the promise of bloom, exotic Japanese maples with curiously formed deep crimson leaves as graceful as dancers' fingers and as seductively tempting to caress, and spreading pink crab apples from the mountains of Western China.

I spent the last week in Oregon, driving around the country roads with a bobtail 30-foot truck picking up trees and shrubs from a dozen nurseries and hauling them to central locations for packing into the big reefer vans for the barge trip to Juneau. It is always the most fun of the year - the chance to collect appropriate plants for our demanding climate and the opportunity to see the whole world of modern horticulture being dragged out of the ground and spread across the world.

I went to a nursery that specialized in small-leafed rhododendrons, where a plant 2-feet tall and wide had taken 50 years to grow. When it bloomed, the tiny brilliant blue blossoms were so thick that the foliage was hidden. Like a tiny bonsai forest in a single plant, the whole history of the world could be traced in its contorted branches and minuscule leaves. This is not the plant for our conditions, but some of its progeny have the hardiness to stand our changeable springs with sudden thaws and shocking refreezes.

One of these is a hybrid from Germany, called Percy Weismann, bred from the Yakusimainna strain of rhody found in Siberia and Northern Japan. Many of these smaller types find favor in our smaller spaces as yards shrink and houses grow. The remarkable thing about this specimen is that it has soft pink blooms with a blush of gold that transforms as it ripens to a pure yellow, something we have never been able to have in a rhododendron before. I trialed some at the university campus and they came through this spring's sudden drop in temperature without a flinch.

Other hardy rhododendrons were burnt this spring, with their leaves all blackened and twisted, but not our Percy.

Some plants can be trained into curious shapes. The twigs are bent or tied to frameworks and allowed to grow and harden into these forms as permanent shapes. This is the technique used to shape shrubbery into giraffes or obelisks. It is called topiary if the shapes are trimmed into 3-D forms or espalier if they are trained flat against a fence or wall. The art form is so popular these days that one can find boxwood deer grazing on lawns, azalea corvettes parked in lines around garages or tiny trees made from rhododendron bushes standing outside the doors of hotels and restaurants. I found some of the local favorite rhododendron called aglo (Olga spelled backward), that were trained into this formal ball on a trunk shape. They have leaves that turn purple during the cold winter and back to deep green in the spring and are covered in fuschia pink blooms during June. They are so cute and are planted in a movable box that can stand by the front door during the summer and be moved to a more protected space for the winter.

Graceful shiny barked Western white pine with soft silky needles could be set among deep green Alaska cedars for perimeter plantings. Lilacs in pinks and purples can be planted around walkways so their fragrance can be enjoyed as the path is used and the delightful spring-blooming pink Daphne will bless those who enter or pass by your home with their clear fragrant scent. These are all packed into the big vans that are arriving into town this week.

It may seem like spring will never get here, until it does, and it seems like it is getting here now. The single note symphony of the thrushes and the excited voices of the tiny songbirds that accompany them wake us daily. Their sounds are the last ones we hear as sleep claims us. It is truly a magical time and the feeling of readiness for planting and rearranging the yard is so strong that neighbors, who rarely speak, discuss common desires.

This month is the most exciting time of the year in Juneau and the feeling of pulling these gaily-wrapped packages of plant pleasure out of my big sack is the greatest joy I have each year. Merry spring/mas to us all.

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