Juneau's shrubs are talking

Posted: Wednesday, June 26, 2002

Driving along Egan, where the bridge crosses, there is a flash of color along the street where the "Miss Kim" dwarf Korean lilacs opens. Look behind the medical clinic by the high school, there is a rhododendron that's 12 feet tall. How about the huge rhododendron hedge along the parking lot at the Bill Ray Center?

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

The summer shrubbery is blooming; lilacs, rhododendrons, azaleas, and the first roses are all open for business this week. The floral communication hotline buzzes with news. Those busybodies are spreading the word as fast as wind, bees, and any concerned humans, can carry it. They have a lot of topics to touch on, but the first and most important is that they are still alive, and ready for some serious reproduction.

Deadly spring weather cut off a lot of the population, and sent a whole bunch of players back to the minor leagues. Mature shrub roses that are struggling back from their roots. Japanese maples that have only a few leaves. Salmon berries that have no blooming age canes are lucky to be alive.

Many of their community of local plants have passed on this year. The burn piles, compost heaps and landfills are bulging with the withered and burnt remnants.

Those who lived are busy getting on with their lives though, and the real messages that the flowering plants are sending is the oldest one of all, it's the "Come hither", the "Hey, big boy" and the "What do you say about you and me" apples speak to the apples, cherries to the cherries, and even the spruces have been whispering on the wind to all the other spruces in the neighborhood.

We may think that these plants are just standing around waiting for us to do something, to dig them up or to plant their seeds or to go buy them in the nurseries, but they are on their own time scale and dancing to their own rhythm. The flowers, with their scent and color are not designed for us. We are recent arrivals on the scene, and our interest and appreciation can be compared to that of the modern eyes looking at ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

We love the look, and are stirred by the strangeness of the hawk's head on human shoulders, but the essential messages of the culture are lost to our common understanding. We can no more feel the reverence that the devout felt in the presence of their gods than we can determine from a wisp of scent which flower is at prime receptivity for insect borne pollination.

Our aesthetic senses are evoked. We admire the bright colors and love the aromas of these blooming concerts, but we don't speak the language in which the songs are written. Italian opera is simple compared to the millennia - old songs of the apple and the rose.

We can learn the tunes, and with a great deal of practice even make out the words, but the easy familiarity with the nuances of the tongue escapes our grasp. We still love opera, hearing a great powerful voice swelling with passion and longing, communicates across the language gap. My friend tells of being on a float trip down the Colorado and passing through the towering flooded canyons in a raft with Pavarotti. He stood in the boat and sang as they slowly drifted through the deep-walled spaces. The waves of song crossing back and forth must have been an unforgettable sensation.

This is what it is like for us when we slow down enough to smell the roses. The deepest longings and most powerful stirrings of an entire life form are plainly revealed, in a language so personal that we can only glimpse scraps of the meaning. What we can pick up from the little we understand is so beautiful that it captures our souls. We too become entranced, floating on our platforms among echoing cascades of aroma and color.

White roses sing to each other along Fifth Street, lilacs whisper across 11th, and those incredible golden azaleas by the bottom of Cross Street broadcast their message to the heavens. Slowly strolling tourists, we wander among the songs and stories of this other race, stirred by the emotion and need of these poets and singers. Our response is joy and reverence, like visitors to lost civilizations, carrying off the memories of heroes, goddesses, and epic voyages to long vanished cities, we are swept away.

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