There are many garden treasures available in Juneau

Landscaping in Alaska

Posted: Wednesday, May 04, 2005

David Lendrum

Landscaping in Alaska

There are a few plants so beautiful that the very mention of their name causes the pricking of ears, the quickening of pulses and the involuntary twitching of digging fingers. A whisper that some are available passes from gardener to gardener in a sub rosa cycle that soon has spaces being mentally prepared for the desired plant, long before actual possession is achieved. Imagined combinations of form, texture and color are tried on, some rejected and some elaborated. Dreams of propagation, of increasing supplies from one to a whole bank full of treasure are inevitable, and the chance to offer a bit fresh from ones own garden to some valued associate is delicious.

The gardening world is driven by novelty, by being among the first to grow a new introduction, or to have a small piece of some fabled treasure from which more may be grown. Like the mill that ground salt; wealth, pleasure and fame will pour out of the ground when that one little baby plant grows. Every year some new hybrid or some rare but well-known favorite fills this role, and this year we are overwhelmed by possibilities.

New rhododendrons always command attention, and one whose flower trusses, rich pink, flushed with golden apricot, carried on sturdy bodies that never outgrow their homes, lead the list. Every gardening person who has seen "Percy Weisman" rhododendrons planted by the big windows at the Egan Building turnaround at the University has commented, heads turned, and people stopped conversations when the new flowers opened last spring.

They are among the wave of smaller rhododendron types, bred for smaller spaces, or for use as skirting to larger forms, to make ensembles that carry color themes and designer combinations into the gardens. Percy is not alone, there are hundreds of recently developed varieties, all fueled by the introduction of the hardy northern Japanese species, Rhododendron yakusamina. This plant has allowed breeders to develop compact plants with large beautiful flowers and sturdy large leaves. These smaller- growing rhododendrons will carry so many flowers that the green parts of the plant are invisible.

Alaskan gardeners are rosecrazed too, and the lure of formerly unavailable colors has fueled the gold rush that follows the new rose, "Yellow Submarine," which gets three to four feet tall and three feet wide, with glossy disease-resistant foliage. The flowers are that rarest of hues, golden yellow, a color that had eluded hardy rose growers for generations.

It seems that all yellow roses in the world can be traced back to a group of roses in Persia, the first known in the west being seen in the 1400s. These are "Persian Yellows." A group of them are planted across the street from the Alaska State Museum. When they bloom each June, their flowers are bright yellow, some with orange or red on one side of the petals. They don't flower long, and their spiny twiggy branches lose their leaves within a month of flowering, but that flash of brilliant yellow is so enchanting that one can feel the century's old desire for floral glory.

The roses developed now, with big, fragrant, longlasting flowers and healthy, beautiful plants, are such a far cry from those ancient species that it is difficult to call them cousins, but the line runs direct. It passes back through "Harrison's Yellow," the Yellow Rose of Texas, planted on the east wall of Riverbend Elementary School. Arching branches with a two-week burst of bright yellow every July, these venerable roses point both backward and foreward, connecting the ancient and the modern.

Roses and rhododendrons are thrilling; the recently released "Endless Summer" blue hydrangea is sensational; waves of new colors in violas are cause for celebration; and the reintroduction of the antique Irish primrose "Guinevere" delights us all. But, hands down, the reigning favorite flowering plant in Juneau is the incredible giant Himalayan blue poppy, a six-foot tall perennial bursting from the ground with hairy buds, claiming its place as queen of the garden in old Juneau and Douglas homes. For generations it was a rarity, and access to the chance seedlings were a coveted indication of one's social and political place in the town.

Now the hybrids and their original parent species are available on the market. Three-year-old blooming plants can now be bought and hundreds of them are springing up in gardens all over the area. They are sent out to friends in Hoonah and Angoon, they grow in Pelican and Gustavus. Wherever they are planted, if they like it they soon spread a carpet of progeny, freely seeding themselves where they like and creating colonies of sky-blue-faced children.

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