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Southeast knows perennial garden power

Landscaping in Alaska

Posted: Wednesday, June 20, 2001

June is National Perennial Gardening Month. In Southeast Alaska we experience the power of perennial flowering plants like nowhere else on the planet. Our wild world is 99 percent perennial plants - mostly wind-pollinated grasses and sedges, but with a huge number of animal-dependent species too.

This time of year we feel the huge awakening and motivating that these flowers elicit from the rest of the world.

The whole year aims at this week. Days will never be longer, nights briefer or - for those of us wedded to the light - sleep more elusive. Four o'clock and it's as bright as necessary, can't stay in bed any longer, day begins. First order of business is check out the garden and how much the perennials have grown in the last 24.

These energy-filled summer days mean almost ceaseless growth for the vast perennial plant families. They relish these times as solar power fuels body building and lengthening days send enough energy to set flowers. Buds, spikes, clusters and rosettes of unfolding petals wave, bob and beckon to passing pollinators - and we go along for the ride.

Flowers are not intended for human pleasure. They are roadside signs flashing "Eat At Joe's" or "All You Can Eat" or "Stick Your Tongue In Here."

The language is visual and olfactory, and each individual flower is aiming for a specific member of the animal kingdom. The partnership between flowering plants and pollinating animals is mostly monogamous, with each colorful sign of receptivity calling some specific animal to approach, enter and pass on to another flower. Shape, color and aroma work in harness to bring about the magic of cross-fertilization and the increase of genetic diversity.

Many of the colors are beyond our visual scale. Ultra-violet photography reveals a graphic designer's instruction manual of directional and seasonal signals leading insects and birds to the exact spot where specially adapted animal parts will mesh with the uniquely evolved plant parts. Lines radiate from the nectaries of flower centers, guiding landing bugs to the kitchen door, and concentric rings beckon high fliers closer for more intimate contact. Flowering time is a vast advertising roar, shouting, flashing, and flooding the animal senses with come hither pheromones and intoxicating fragrances.

Right now prime time begins, flower season is upon us and the insects and pollinating birds are awake. Oh yes, many local species are bird attracting. Last week's article in the Empire about the rufous hummingbird pointed out that the Alaskan blueberry blossom is shaped and colored to attract these long-distance fliers as well as the bees and flies that we see more often.

Garden flowers are rushing into color, delphiniums are stretching into bloom and nodding columbines tumble about in the breezes. Blue poppies stand above all competition, and those floating lavender saucers called scabiosa look like conventions of extraterrestrial vehicles. Clouds of tiny chartreuse blossoms cover the intricately folded lady's mantle leaves and the minty twisty stems of all those lamiums sport clusters of pink, purple or clean white.

We worried earlier that most of our perennials had been killed by the late frost, and the damage was severe, but this month reassures us that the gardens endure all. Dave Pijan was describing old gardens to Margaret last week as having very long memories. Even years after the hand of the cultivator has passed and decades of neglect allows invasion by buttercups and weedy grasses, a few tendrils of the original treasured species show where they once thrived.

It is not hard to revitalize these old gardens; it requires weeding and lifting old perennials, cleaning out undesirable roots and stems from the soil, and dividing old crowns to stimulate new growth from the edges.

Reinvigorating the garden soil with manures and composts will encourage the growth of the new divisions and in a very short time they will once again be ready to fill the air with color and aroma. The recuperative power of the garden is inspirational, and the outlines of old spaces with the few indicators of bed inhabitants can become enjoyable gardens again in just a few seasons.

Perennial plants endure; with care they thrive; and they repay all our efforts in their behalf with all they have to give. They offer us a chance to participate in the rhythm of life, to dance with them through another flowering time, and to watch as they call for attention from their partners.

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