Perennials showing signs of life and color

Gardening in Alaska

Posted: Wednesday, April 26, 2000

All over our region the long-dormant perennials are coming back.

They poke exploratory tips above the safe, dark, warm ground into the colder, brighter, more dangerous air. They test the climate; slowly they uncoil precious food reserve molecules, creating new growing tips. Buds emerge with the tenderest new leaves still folded and curled, so soft - so juicy - no hard surfaces yet. They are like butterflies with their silken wings just out from the transforming dark.

Slowly unfolding their ever-so-delicate foliage they enter the new season. Gaining reassurance from the success of their older bolder compatriots, skunk cabbage and geum are already fully out and thriving.

Marsh marigold is still mostly buds with a little bit of golden petal slipping out of her green robe, just enough to feel the air temperature and see if the last snow was really the last snow.

A whiteout on the 22nd of April, becoming sunny and 55 by 3 p.m. - where else but Southeast Alaska? No matter, it was just a slight flurry; a brief snowstorm didn't change the essential soil temperature. The mercury is still rising and the new life comes flooding back over the long-abandoned landscape like a religious revival.

Spirits lift, rejuvenation is upon us, and the cycle that has repeated itself for millions of years has spun along again. The annual miracle is changing the surface of the earth from bare to bearing, as life climbs up out of the frozen soil into the light and warmth of the spring.

Wet and mushy it may look from the human vantage, but excitement and opportunity are the spring slogans of the plant kingdom.

Buds swell on roses and lilacs, the enormous candelabras of the devil's clubs illuminate the creeks and marshes, and the aroma of cottonwood begins to fill the air. Himalayan immigrants, those ball-on-a-stick primroses, pop out of the ground in gardens all over the borough, pom-poming their way across the landscape, waving their fluffy cheerleader tools to the whole world. They chant and sing their anthem as the bulkier, heavier bulbous team pushes its way into bloom.

We see the first yellow as early daffodils open, like a crack in the frozen lake, they will not be held back any longer, they will bloom no matter what. Tulips are slower to be aroused; they need to feel the frenzy of their neighbors before they can make their moves. It is wise to have enough daffodils in the garden to jump-start those sleepy steppe dwellers.

Nurseries are receiving new lives too; crates, tubs and boxes of roots, seedlings and choice plants for the new season are arriving. Bare root plants are coming into their own as we humans venture out for the first time without a coat and gloves and scarf. The last week has seen the arrival of peonies, bleeding hearts and irises, the stalwart backbones of thousands of our local gardens. These emerging floral characters are tucking their roots into Alaska soils; feeling Auke Bay peat and Lemon Creek sand or the silken texture of North Douglas's finest mud as they begin their first independent steps.

Twenty years ago Margaret and I met an energetic Dutch family who had settled in Washington state, their paterfamilias was a believer in the growth potential of the hardy perennial business. They began with a few acres of bulbs and as the children took their places in the business they expanded into greenhouse-grown fuschias and field-grown perennials as they continued their family tradition of tulips.

The fields have prospered, they have grandchildren in the operation and they supply growers and markets all over the world. Their roots come here, as they have for the last two decades, and the transforming power of these hardy perennial flowers has been one of the best things to hit Juneau in a hundred years. Each year more than 500 peonies begin a new life here, 2,000 irises find their futures, and astilbes by the thousands enter the rolls of citizenship in Southeast Alaska.

Tough, reliable and within the budgetary reach of any interested gardener, these roots are synchronized with the big wild world, they drink from the same cup and sleep in the same bed as the native perennials that make up our world-famous meadows and shorelines.

Years ago we began noting the parallels between our native perennial-based landscape and the emerging ``New American Landscape'' movement. It is perfect for us, and this time of year it fills us with the same joy as being in the ideal place at the right time.

David Lendrum is a master gardener and, along with Margaret Tharp, owns Landscape Alaska. Any responses or questions can be sent to www.landscapealaska.com .



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