Wild Delight

Wildflowers are the sprinkles on top of Alaska's landscape

Posted: Sunday, July 23, 2006

Like an eye-popping painting or a magical mosaic, the wildflowers of Southeast Alaska provide a plethora of visual stimulation in the summer months.

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Of the nearly thousand natural species of plants in the Panhandle, a few hundred of those would be considered wildflowers, said Mary Stensvold, regional botanist for the U.S. Forest Service.

"We really do have an array of some fabulous flowers here," she said. "I think right now, this is the time of the year to go up into the alpine."

Wildflowers can be found throughout Juneau, from the meadows to the muskegs, depths of the forest to the heights of the alpine.

Stensvold said wildflower viewing is amplified in Southeast Alaska because of the glacier-cut-fjordlands and ice-carved meadows.

"We are unique in part because we have all the areas where the glaciers have recently receded and those are areas where you tend to have a lot of wildflowers and colors," she said.

Alaska also provides a pristine backdrop for wildflower viewing and photography because of the abundance of land unscathed by development, Stensvold said. Even areas renowned for wildflowers, such as the Cascade Mountains, do not shine in their former glory, because of human encroachment, she said.

"We take wildflowers for granted here in Alaska," Stensvold said. "I don't think we realize that we are in the middle of a very wild area where we are seeing a natural ecosystem that has been around for a long time."

Carol Biggs, the author of two volumes of pocket books on wild, edible and medicinal plants of the Alaska, Canada and the Pacific Northwest rain forest, said this is a good time of year to get outdoors and look for wildflowers. She said some of the flowers have already bloomed and some are yet to bloom, but many of the species are in great abundance.

"The tendency is for the masses to come out at the same time," she said. "If everybody bloomed at the same time they might not be able to carry on if some big old weather event came about."

Biggs said a late freeze this spring has delayed the flowering this season compared to the last several years, but added that the wildflowers are biologically savvy and know when it's the right time to shine their brightest.

"Nature doesn't think they're late," she said. "They're right on time according to what is going on in the natural world and they know when it is time to come out."

Biggs said observing wildflowers over a season can be educational.

"It's very exciting to follow the cyclical development of plants," she said. "Not only do we learn a lot about them but it tunes us into the cycles of life."

The wildflowers can also offer enthusiasts more than just beautiful view.

"When you talk about wildflowers, generally they turn into some kind of fruit," she said. "Whether it's a berry or if it's like dwarf dogwood."

Stensvold said there is a wide variety of wildflowers to chose from to enjoy, from the vivid blue geraniums to the deep orange and yellow columbines.

"You tend to have the more colorful flowers in the open areas and in the forest you seems to have white flowers," she said.

Nootka lupine, forget-me-not, white marsh marigold, Cooley's buttercup and salmonberry also provide a rainbow of color to the Alaska landscape.

Stensvold said there are also nearly 30 species of orchids, one of the planet's most exotic and favored types of flowers.

"We got a tremendous amount of orchids that are really amazing, but you have to get close to them to see that they're orchids," she said. "Most of them are pretty small but we have some flashy ones that are really beautiful."

Alaska's wildflowers are a favorite of residents and tourists alike. Sam Green, an owner of Miss Scarlett's flower shop, said some tourists have been incorporating the beauty of Alaska's landscape into their weddings.

"Typically we'll do a few wedding bouquets during the summer for folks who come up here and get married," she said.

Green said it is still a relatively small market, but it is an intimate sentiment that people can add to their special day.

"It's mostly forget-me-not and fireweeds, but folks have a few other things that they like too," she said.

Stensvold said the bright pink fireweed that lines the trails and roadways around Juneau acts as a kind of natural timer for when summer is coming to its end.

"As it produces its flowers, pretty soon the flowers turn into seed pods and then you think, 'Wow, summer is ending,'" she said. "It's not something I'm excited about seeing."

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