Long-lived, related plants make a neighborhood

Posted: Wednesday, August 29, 2001

Looking at a neighborhood is like using old diaries to trace the movements of a lost family member - just faint hints of happenings and traces of appearances. Occasionally a clear clue appears, but the story is so hazy that there could be many branches of the truth.

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

I was walking through the 12th Street neighborhood with a woman who moved in last year. We were snooping - in a nice, respectable way - around the fencerows and alleys of the old neighborhood, looking at the trees and shrubs planted by hands unknown many years ago. The old cherries overhanging the fence are the same age as the ones on Telephone Hill, the same age as the ones in Tenakee Springs, or Hoonah or Klukwan.

Haines has the same cherries and Sitka has more than all the rest of the towns put together.

They are the result of the cherry breeding program at the old Sitka Experiment Station, and when the station closed down, the trees vanished within a couple of months. They have achieved the goal of the station even better than anyone could have predicted. A desirable plant was introduced to our region and spread from hand to hand, making life better each time.

We also saw some spiraeas that were so similar that they must have been divisions of some original specimen. In one yard, they're used as a hedge dividing that side yard from the next; in another, it's a huge bush filling a corner; and others are intermixed with perimeter shrubs or leaning lazily against a garage. They all bloom together, slender pinky-purple wands like jam-stained fingers lifting salutes to each other and sharing their perfume across the property lines.

Someone planted one. As their neighbors watched it grow and flower they must have admired it. One day some lucky soul was given a division; a piece was dug up and cut loose from the edge and sent off. That was just the beginning, because this same spiraea is all over the downtown. It covers windows, shelters mailboxes and shades walls - mostly let go to do its own thing, but occasionally controlled and directed to perform some task. They blend into the background until mid-August, and then they all start to wave and we see them again.

Huge old Tatarian honeysuckles grow there, too, their shaggy bark and gnarled trunks looking so antique, the masses of tiny bright red berries out of scale with the thick woody frames. They grow where they were planted, usually so close to the house that you know the original gardener never thought they would get so large. There is one that comes up right next to the wall; the trunk completely fills the space between the building and the sidewalk. The old shrub probably predates the concrete by decades, having been planted when the frame house was new.

Newer members of the local garden population are in attendance this week also, deep purple clematis are in full color now as are those abundant and oh so fragrant honeysuckle vines. The honeysuckle vine that spills over the arbors and reaches up the walls is shot through with exploded trumpet shapes of pink and gold. Aromas rather than smooth jazz drift away from their orchestra, and I imagine evening and dawn must be so sweet in their vicinity.

Rhododendrons and azaleas have softly surrendered their months of glory, still well-dressed in respectable deep green and posing in stately attitudes. No hint of their former exuberance remains, while early blooming February daphne is sheathed in brilliant red. The fleshy berries that surround the stems are virulently poisonous, and they look like it. Glossy, and untouched by birds or bugs, they hang on until the fleshy fruit falls away and then they lie under the parent tree and rot. The young sprouts make colonies, but rarely do you find one off by itself. No gatherer or collector chooses these deadly specimens.

Some yards are spic and span: lawn carefully mowed and edged, beds weed free and cultivated, and the spring blooming primroses all June-divided. The sequence of bloom has been prepared, and the carpet of rock cress looks beautiful. Neighboring yards may be less-carefully tended, but they share the same plants. The sense of the neighborhood is so strong that they seem like siblings in a family portrait, sharing the same hair or shape of mouth but still totally individual. It is these long-lived and closely related beings that make an area a neighborhood.

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



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