Up from the roots, into the sky

Posted: Wednesday, May 28, 2008

From the southern coastal zones, along the tidal reaches and up the tributary valleys, the vast underground mass is awakening.

Languorously and deliberately, the first tiny shoots poke out. Then species by species, region by region, the whole entity that is the Southeast Alaska plant world begins to rise from winter's slumber.

Starting at the edge of the sea, creeping up the streams and rivers, rolling over the marshes and wetlands, and up the slopes, the tide of returning life rolls up the landscape.

Soils warm, delicate little tendrils lift from the embrace of the earth and explore the air; slight and lacey, slender and pokey, round and succulent, the new tips open the season of growth and flowering. Elderberries show new leaves, springing from dried and stiff branches like emerging wings. Willows unroll the clusters of baby leaves soft as feathers, and the Serviceberries are almost ready to bloom. But the vast majority of life here is closer to the ground, where the herbaceous world fills the surface, and knots together underneath.

This is a world of roots, of rhizomes and corms and thickened underground storage units keeping the dream alive, holding fast to the image of a green world through all the frozen nights and wet winter days.

While we skied or slipped or labored in insulated suits, the ancient plant community waited. It waited for the return of tolerable weather, of temperate days and cool but frostfree nights. The roots were not frantic to return, they were content and rotund and wealthy with the solar harvest of last year's abundance. Dreaming the slow torpid dreams of the dormant, remembering the sunny days of the past and waiting, the enormous mass of roots lay under the frozen ground.

The life of the heavy rooted must be very different from our own. The intricately connected series of individuals that make up a community of individual sedges that form a marsh all share the same ancestry, live in the same space, and rise and fall together through the season. They support each other, protect each other, and as individuals die and return to the earth, they replace each other.

The root world is a close, densely packed place, full of rough hairy creatures, full of the starch and sugars of the season past. The turning tide of the yearly cycle has awoken them, and like the tide they are rising. A shimmering sheen of new green is just showing over the gray and wasted remnants of last year's faded foliage, but the real activity is still underground. The root world is alive now, with the beginnings of another seasons work already begun.

The same cycle turns in our domestic spaces too, our lawns turn green as the new growth rises from the roots of the grass plants just like the new growth in the marshes, the flowering perennials that enliven our gardens; peonies, delphiniums, astilbes and bleeding hearts send up sprouts and shoots just like the oak ferns, the marsh violets and skunk cabbages.

Our ornamental shrubs begin their cycle in the same manner, buds swell on the mollis azaleas, new leaves open on gold leaved barberries and actual flowers open on the earliest blooming rhododendrons. But like the wild world, the majority of the work is going on underground.

Roots and their ability to lie dormant until the conditions for growth return are so fantastic that it always amazes. To hold an awakening mass in the hand and see the softening places where the shoots will arise, to feel the first roots begin to grow out, looking for sustenance and moisture, is one of the most marvelous things in our lives. Generations and ages and civilizations and glacial epochs have rolled on and each season the small miracle of returning growth repeats, the roots come alive again. Softly, and tentatively, and always with the awareness that this time might be different, the plants revive.

We human gardeners have long profited from this cycle, we dig the roots from their safe spaces, pull them from the ground, put them in our pockets and travel off to some new place. When we light we plant them again and the whole cycle begins. We choose roots of plants we love and with knife and clippers we cut them into pieces, each with its eyes, its buds and its bank of stored food, and we plant them again. One special plant can become 10, 50 can become a thousand, and places where the world has never known the joy of a bleeding heart can feel the pleasure of her presence.

It is that time of year again, the roots of the favorite flowering plants are here, and ready to plant in our gardens.

• David Lendrum, with Margaret Tharp, has operated Landscape Alaska for 25 years in Juneau. They design and build landscapes on every scale and have won numerous awards both locally and nationally. They have a weekly call-in show on KINY and can be contacted through their Web site at www.landscapealska.com.

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