Midsummer signals are sent and received, preparations are made for the fullness of the summer flowering shrubbery, and the first indicators are the massive flowering of the big spiraea clan. The most numerous locally is the archingly branched, white-crowned Snowmound. Every year this shrub sends people into a tizzy as they scour local nurseries and plant sales, asking each other "What is that big beautiful bush across from Sealaska in the CBJ parking lot?"
Some answer with "Oh, you mean the one along the front of Mapco-Tesoro-Williams?" Others say "The one blooming in front of the Douglas Library," and more recently many people can turn and point into their own yard and say with pride, "That is my Snowmound, isn't she lovely?"
Spiraeas come in lots of other colors and shapes, too. The one called Billardi grows as tall as we are, with lavender pink blossoms that look like lilac clusters. It sends up sprouts from the base, increasing the number of branches until it becomes a huge clump. We have dug up old ones from people's yards that have been split into a dozen new plants, each a foot across. The 3- t o 4-inch-long leaves are blunt-ended with tiny points along the margins, and when autumn comes they glow with gold and red. A tougher hedge has never been planted than one based in this Billardi spiraea.
Pink Princess is another that's well represented in our gardens. Mounding and humping across the ground with hundreds of intensely branched twigs, it has the winter appearance of a sea urchin. The first thought when one sees the unclothed version of this shrub is: How can anything have so many branches? The summer vision is so densely foliated that we have no hint of the complexity that lies below the surface. And its calm surface conceals the raging divisions below.
The princess shows her regal status in the late summer when she appears dressed for the ball in all her finery. She covers her sleek curves with abundant rosettes of tiny pink buds. The impression is of a carpet of roses, so tiny and clustered are the flowers that individual petals cannot easily be discerned, and the color is a truly delicious strawberry ice cream pink. Autumn color, too, is royal, as the leaves deepen through bronze to gold and rich crimson appears along leaf edges before they blow away in the first gales.
This low shape is the model for a few other selections, mostly Japanese or Korean in origin. Colors range from snowy white Halwards Silver to the incredibly multicolored Shirobana with its pink, white and deep rose flowers all at the same time. These are all hardy here, and can be relied upon for a medium-height presence in flower borders, or as a slightly taller ground cover if planted more densely.
Goldflame, Limeglow, Goldmound and Golden Princess are all yellow-leafed sports or mutations. They would not be able to compete in the wild world, since lighter-colored leaves are not as efficient at harvesting sunlight as deeper green ones. But since we humans value the unusual they are given the extra time and space to survive. They give that eye-catching burst of gold or fluorescent green to mixed beds, and in commercial sites they're often used to indicate points of attention. The store owner who has them planted by the front door, or under the display window will have twice as many lookers, since the unusual shade draws glances involuntarily.
Old-fashioned gardens have Bridal Veil spiraea as a midsummer standard. These massive shrubs flow upward in a volcano-like eruption, pouring out and over and reaching all the way to the ground in a cascade of white flowers. Small children use the space created by this shielding curtain of slender stems as a secret place in the yard. Many adults stop when they see the shrub in bloom and smile as they remember grandmothers or even great-grandmothers who had these 10-foot-wide fountains in their yards.
We in Southeast Alaska have to provide good soil and a reliable supply of nutrients for these big shrubs to flourish, but given a desirable place they will exceed our expectations and dominate a corner of the yard in July each summer.
Spiraeas give a lot to our local landscapes. Between the lilac/rhododendron glory of June and the roses and viburnums of August, these hardy companions dominate the field. Look around this week and you will see them, sturdily and quietly performing their jobs.
David Lendrum is a master gardener and owner of Landscape Alaska. Responses or questions can be sent to www.landscapealaska.com