Landscaping in Alaska

Autumn color again fills the landscape

Posted: Wednesday, September 20, 2000

Color blazes through the landscape, gold and orange along the water as Cottonwoods turn, bright yellow in the openings of the trees where Devils Club grows, and deep red Highbush Cranberry spiraling through underbrush. Blueberries have speckled themselves with purple and chrome, and sweet little Creeping Dogwoods are so crimson that they look like they're in costume.

Grasslands are showing the dramatic changes that mean seasonal shift as the silver and cream layers of the flowering and seeding stems wave across the deeper green of the still vibrant understory. Roadside layers of Goatsbeard, Yarrow and Sedge have turned brown and gray, their seeds weighing them over. Courtiers carrying tribute to the royals.

Birds are stuffing themselves, berries are vanishing at an astounding rate as the transformation from plant to animal proceeds. All the wild world is gathering itself into an orgy of consumption; fish, fowl, mammal and bug load up for the winter, and the feasting hall is decorated for the party.

Created landscapes are coloring up, too. Those treasured and selected plants gathered from around the world to accompany us through our domestic lives are even more exuberant in their color responses than the natives.

Backyards, sideyards and along the street, these chosen species bellow and shout their excitement -- they are like children preparing for a parade. They compete for the prizes of most colorful, most transformed and most surprising. Shrubs planted for spring bloom thrill us as overnight they appear in carnival dress. Leaves are still the same size, they are in the same position, but the staid and productive green of the growing season has become the fancy costume of autumn.

Roses shimmer as they become purple and gilt. Rugosas, the Sitka Rose family, adorn themselves with the huge crowned apples, still green but only awaiting the signal of lengthening nights to move into orange and then to royal red. These fruits, called hips by the hip, are treasured by the gathering folk, they have flavor and sweetness that warm many a winter teapot. Their landscape value likewise warms the eyes of the enjoyers as they bob and weave through the transforming foliage.

Other roses likewise show off. The Canadian Explorers are in full blooming glory now, so many flowers that the tables are filed with bouquets and the happy bushes are still throwing up unblemished clusters of buds. The response from these new varieties has been magnificent; disease free foliage, sweet color and intense aromas combined on plants that appear perfect for smaller spaces. This winter will provide the test of hardiness: Will they go dormant in time? Will they be tempted to emerge into growth too soon? I'll let you know.

Roses are not alone; color trumpets from maple leaves. Bold and brassy, soft and pastel, symphonic arangements as various species contribute their best tones to the concert. Vine Maple from the Pacific Northwest draws spectators who croon in delight. The shading from bright gold through the oranges and rust to the fire engine reds on the child's hand-sized leaves is spectacular. Filmy layers of purplish feathers trail over split leafed Japanese Maples, placing them with the oranger Vine Maples emphasises the value of each other. Upright and sturdy set alongside these sweeping and graceful shapes only serves to highlight the arrangement.

Similar colors cover maples from the Amur River in Siberia, these local favorites have sharply divided tiny leaves with shrubby shapes. Their many branches and widely varied colors, from creamy parchment with a red edge to golden orange and fiery reds, suggests the multitude of uses they have in the landscape. Screening, highlighting, or as a hedge component, these small trees have real value.

Shrubby shapes contribute much of the color; lilacs turn purple and yellow, Japanese Enkianthus is violet and red, and the Snowballs and their cousins are so bright red that they glow. Burning Bush or Winged Spindleberry is just beginning the transformation into the star of the season, still mostly green but beginning to show the jewel colors that will carry it into winter. Siberian Red Stemmed Dogwoods leaves are red-edged golden flags, trailing from crimson-barked stems, they will be increasing in beauty for the next several months until they stand out brilliantly against the snow.

Leaves and bark are not the only show in town; lilies are in full glory now. The old-fashioned orange Tiger Lilies have been blooming for a month, multicolored Asiatics are still popping into color and treasured Orientals are just beginning to open. What a sight, lilies set against the glory of fall colors.

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David Lendrum is a master gardener and owner of Landscape Alaska. Any responses or questions can be sent to

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