Living around big trees that overarch houses and cover the front yard with protective shade is an experience few southeastern families experience. Our trees are more upright, soaring vertically without spreading very far. This is a function of both species and age, since even a Sitka Spruce will spread out if given enough time.
We spent the holiday in the town of Tenakee Springs, where benign climate and long settlement have combined with early pioneer landscaping to provide mature-sized trees in a miniature setting. The street is small by urban standards, perfectly suited to the needs of the residents of this out of the way place, where the houses are creations of another era. Each is set in a landscape embellished by huge forested backdrops and the constant presence of the sea, and showing like jewels are majestic large cultivated trees.
There are old varieties of Norway Maple, the dark-leaved Schwedleri cultivar, almost unobtainable today. George and Jean Rodgers had one in their Highlands home here in Juneau, but that was the only one I had ever seen in Alaska. Tenakee has three on the main street; dark red leaves, much deeper colored than modern types, and over 20 feet tall. The sun through deep, dark leaves colors the air like rubies.
A little ways down the street were equally large choke cherries, vigorous long oval leaves giving off the distinctive sharp aroma of these fast-growing tough beauties. The foliage was so thick, and the place so set with these trees that you could not see into the yard. Branches coming right down to the ground and layers of growth keeping the interior of the space very private, even though the house is less than 20 feet from the thoroughfare.
The next trees to catch our attention are cherries too, the ones we know locally as Telephone Hill cherries. These are delicious sweet-fruited trees, that have to be obtained as a sprout from someone who has one. They are the result of a fruit tree-breeding program carried on at the old extension farm in Sitka. Cherries from all over the world were evaluated and crossed for their possible use here in Alaska, when the farm was shut down in the '30s, the cherries mysteriously vanished within a year.
The ones in Tenakee are much larger than the ones we have here in downtown Juneau and the original one brought to town by some forgotten person stands in a very tidy home right in the main part of Tenakee. Kids play football and practice pitching in the street under the big branches of this fruitful giant, and the contented look on the face of the dweller reflects his satisfaction with life and his tree. He told me that all the rest of the cherries in Tenakee were suckers and sprouts from this one, and we saw dozens.
Here in Juneau, people like me go look at the big yellow transparent apple tree that grows behind St. Anne's downtown. It is a respectable-sized fruit tree by any standards, big enough to climb, and generously donating several hundred delicious apples to the community each season. It is by far the largest one in our town, but the tiny city of Tenakee has us beat by a longshot; there are so many apple trees in the yards and back on the hills that they must wallow in fruit during August. They are huge, spreading over several lots at once and growing in groves that undulate over the land independently, reflecting the unsurveyed manner of the old world, unconcerned with petty property boundaries.
Margaret and I are like tourists everywhere, attracted to familiar elements in unfamiliar settings, and struck by unexpected sights. The city park, carefully tended with sweeps of old European garden flowers, long established and able to compete with the wild plants, looked so lovely. It is foxglove and sweet rocket time, and like the older neighborhoods of Juneau, these escapees from domesticity make themselves at home wherever they wish, they bloom all over and pansies everywhere, set into crocks, growing in baskets and scattered in yards like glowing opals or tourmalines.
Honeysuckle pours over fences, adorns building fronts and climbs up arbors. One of my friends who lives there said that he has tried to get it to grow in his Juneau setting for years without success, but in the sheltered setting and fertile soil of Tenakee they thrive. Lucky them, and lucky us to visit.
David Lendrum is a master gardener and owner of Landscape Alaska. Responses or questions can be sent to www.landscapealaska.com.