Spring rains bring dormant perennials back to life

Posted: Wednesday, May 15, 2002

Spring comes slowly, looking around corners to be sure that there is no danger of the cold death. Dormant perennials feel their way to the surface, reaching up into the warmth for the rejuvenating light.

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

The earliest indicators of the returning species give impressions unique to this stage of growth. It is much like a kindergarten class filled with emerging personalities.

Peonies' reddish fingers show up among the comical primroses. The disproportionate size of primula flowers and her early season leaves make her seem top-heavy, while the succulent glossy texture of the peoney belies its enduring strength. Lungwort's speckled leaves are still tiny, barely an inch from end to end, but their clustered pink bells dwarf the baby leaves.

The most enchanting of all are the bleeding hearts. They are so smooth and so carefully furled, even as buds the color and texture of these leaves thrills us. Gray-green and intricately twisted, they spin as they rise, the frills opening slowly, inexorably and with such grace that all other activity seems slowed to the pace of this springtime dance.

Daffodils show the first colors. Sunny slopes are ablaze with narcissus in gold and glitz. The earliest types seem so bright, but this might be the result of color deprivation during the long winter. The later blooming varieties will have more subtle coloring, combinations of creamy orange and lip-licking pinks will join all the yellows we can perceive. These first shock troops have broken down the walls, and all the flowering species are pouring out into the light behind them.

This is the season we sing of, dream about and revel in. The bright days of the last six weeks were so welcome and we were astounded by the endless dry weather, but thousands of voices joined with mine welcoming back the rain and the flowers. People are waving while slowly strolling through the nursery inspecting the new stock and they are gardening.

Every year the emergence of the daffodils coincides with the arrival of all the dormant perennial roots, and boxes of astilbes, irises, peonies and ligularias are piled up, waiting to be planted.

These messengers from down under are like missionaries, they bring glad tidings from the underground and their stories encourage and enlighten us. Smelling of soil, feeling alive in a way fish never does, they slip from dormancy to active growth in the blink of an eye.

Thick tubers of peony, delicate fringes of bleeding hearts, or the robust uncurling ferns that will be the glorious astilbes, these roots and stems make their annual pilgrimage to the gardens of the north. Hosannas of horticulture, orchestras of ornament, symphonies of shape and color, these perennials are composing and performing long before they are in flower. The weight and texture of the roots is so satisfying to the touch, and feels so potent that planting them is an invocation to the spirit of the earth.

The universal practice of making miniature representations of desired objects and burying them to ensure success must have its basis in this earliest of agricultural activities. Long before people were able to collect and store seed for the next year, they had access to the roots. They could dig up a desired tuber mass, pull off a few to rebury for the future, and carry off dinner. Hunting and gathering peoples really were gathering more than hunting. The prey didn't run away and one knew just where to find it. As long as a small portion of the root was reburied, one could expect to return to the site and be satisfied all over again.

Our fascination with the roots of things derives from this ancient connection; it was knowledge of the roots that allowed us to survive. The most ancient titles of knowledge refer to the art of root usage. Long before we went to doctors in white coats, we had access to the curative powers of the underworld, revealed and transmitted by the root woman. The medicines contained in these roots are many of the same ones we now employ and many of the plants in our decorative arrangements first made their way into our lives as medical herbs.

The passage of centuries has distanced us from this knowledge, but the derivative experience of ornamental plantings still stirs the same emotions; reverence, delight, self-expression and the knowledge of our integral connection with the larger world. Roots rule.

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