Beautiful colors still accent winter landscape

Posted: Wednesday, November 14, 2001

Cold air flows down the mountains, chilling my hands as I cut down the last of the perennials. The stalks are now brittle and most of the leaves are pale outlines, with the rich color drained away like money put into the vault. The greens, reds and purples, the deep yellows and the rich oranges are all settled down into the roots, now thick with all the pigments of the summer shows. These flashing sparkles that dance and flow are stored, along with the fragrance, the soft touch and the delightful tastes of our summer companions.

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

It seems like all is over, but then as I am trimming off the withered leaves of a Himalayan geranium, I notice that there are shiny glints coming through the gray. Pea-sized pink balls, these are buds that were ready to open, but it just got too cold and they froze in mid phase.

Looking about I can see that the gray lifeless layer covers a collection of other colors. There are bright flashes from the astilbe tops, broken down and bent over, but still showing ruby and plum. The deep purple leaves of the chocolate sails heuchera were so shiny all summer that the faces of the surrounding flowers were reflected on their surfaces. They still have the glow if not the shine. The veins on each leaf lead my eye down the stems and under the canopy to the pointy tips that promise another season of showmanship. These new releases from the terra nova plant breeders are so large and colorful that the older forms seem washed out by comparison.

We planted some of the autumn blooming Japanese anemones this year. We have tried them before but not gotten them to bloom before winter came. This year I was full of hope, since the autumn has been so mellow. They have huge pink buds atop their strong stems, and look so ready, but snow is falling on them as I write this. I don't have much hope.

There are other species that are still showing color: the big deep blue azure monkshoods (Aconitum napellus) which are the last ones to bloom are still in full flower. There is a big planting of them in front of the totem by the Governor's mansion, and their intricate hooded shape always draws comment and attention.

The larger scale planting still carry a lot of color too. The roses from Canada are still blooming. The American cranberry is fully in leaf with the huge clusters of bright red berries, and the wonderful exbury azaleas are so red they glow. It's surprising that something so exotic and fragrant will be among the last to drop its leaves. The newer hybrid azaleas, the northern lights, and all her real hardy siblings went dormant a month ago, but the old standard is still showing spirit. That is not always an indication of hardiness. Some years those that don't go dormant in time will be killed by early deep freezes, so for areas like Montana Creek or the back of the valley the lights series will be a better choice.

The small-leafed rhododendrons are switching to their winter colors now too. The one called PJM is turning ruddy purple. The one named Aglo is deep red already, and all the rest are blue gray with purple highlights. The winter coloring of these small evergreen shrubs is just as thrilling as the flower show, and lasts three times as long.

Other spots of color in the landscape are the winter bark of the dogwoods. There are bright red, pink, coral and golden yellow ones. Most of them revert to the deep green during the summer and only show the winter tones after it gets cold.

Old homes around Juneau have Japanese, Irish, or English Yews. These small leaved evergreens are slow growing, but extremely tough. There are ones growing back near Trafalgar Street that are almost 10 feet tall. The English and Irish forms stay deep green during the winter, but the Japanese ones get orange rusty red. They are so unusual that many people plant them just for the winter colors.

Winter is coming onto us as we look at the last of the summer color, but that doesn't mean that it is the last of the color. The landscape continues to fascinate us, day in and day out, season after season, all year long. Landscape creation is an exercise in perception as well as construction. You learn to see new things each time you look.

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