Color moves across the land

Posted: Friday, August 22, 2008

C olor steals across the land, settling down from the heights as if carried by gravity.

The tones begin in the berries, first in the fruit as the rich flavors appear, signaled by their hues. Purple, red, orange and so many shades of blue arise that it is as if a whole spectrum were developed for blue alone. The hints of seasonal change were the fruits, then the earliest leaves began to change, and these were in the berries too. Creamy yellows began in the tips of the blueberries, brilliant chrome yellows in the salmonberries, and the trailing currants' first marmalade orange leaves appeared soon after.

The vast tide of ocean harvesting fish-flesh sweeps onto the land, carrying the nutrients that feed the whole world, the shore is covered with its abandoned containers as the power of the fish flows into the streams and onto the beaches. The web of harvesting lives absorbs the harvest and uses it to grow again and the color of the land changes as the next year's food arrives.

Our wild world is so dramatic that it overwhelms the domestic scenes we create, but our intimate surroundings have a rhythm and process of their own. Our gardens and outdoor living spaces are crafted of plants chosen for their colors, scents and textures; it is no wonder that many carry the color change to such heights.

This week we planted one of the most spectacular color changing specimens we can grow in our locale. The split-leaved full moon maple called dancing peacock is a smallish tree with a strong smooth bark and an upright habit of growth that is masked by the huge pendulous leaves. When they begin to change from Swiss chard green to ripe apple red it is only the beginning. They will progress through tomato to stop sign and then on to fire engine, and when the light shines through the leaves and the colors glow as if in a cathedral, it is breathtaking.

There are others that will shine as the greens die away and the deeper colors hidden in the leaves appear, the coppery colors of the horse chestnuts on Calhoun, and the stirring ruddy tones of the big beech in the same yard will be echoed by the mountain ashes and the Norway maples, but the first are always the dazzling Japanese maples. There is something so desirable about the form and color of these trees that even a first-time visitor to a garden will seek them out and bask in their presence.

There are many flowering plants whose blossoming is timed for the shoulder season of August and September. A garden composition of Autumnal leaf changes highlighted by late summer flowers is charming. Some of our favorite perennials are just making their floral appearance now, the fluffy purple to pink palette of astilbes is just opening, and they will carry many local gardens through the next months, black-leaved snakeroot will soon open its flowers too. The massive deep purple leaves are so dark they appear black and they grow so well in the same locations as the filmy greens of the six-foot meadowsweet that they seem destined to accompany each other into that hardest of landscape places, the perpetually wet.

Our bleeding hearts are entering their second flush of bloom now. We cut them back a month ago when they looked tired and yellow, and now they have regrown into fresh vibrant mounds of color, and the same of the delphiniums. The ability of these sturdy old-time favorites to bloom heavily and then, after being cut down and fed, to do it all over again is one of their greatest attributes.

The colors are appearing in the shrubbery too, as the days shorten and the plants begin to prepare for the next season. My personal favorite is a deciduous azalea; crinkly green leaves are the uniform of the day now since it made its colorful bloom show in late May and early June before the leaves were open. The deep oranges and bright golds of the intensely fragrant flower clusters drew the bumblebees and the circling aroma-starved humans at the same rate, but the real show is just about to begin. Variety by variety, these plain-looking shrubs will light up with spectacular fall color. The intensity of the reds and golds in their foliage is so great that people will stop to beg a couple of leaves for their arrangements. There is a rhododendron that changes colors for the fall too. Her name is aglo, and the shiny, slightly fleshy leaves will take on first a purple burgundy color, and then a brilliant red.

The autumnal color shift is begun, and behind all this rain and fog are the first hints of the most colorful season we have. Get ready for the fireworks as the next wave of color arrives.

• David Lendrum, with Margaret Tharp, has operated Landscape Alaska for 25 years in Juneau. They design and build landscapes on every scale and have won numerous awards both locally and nationally. They have a weekly call-in show on KINY and can be contacted through their Web site at

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