Gardens for Alaska
J. G. Bacher
It is just too bad that more garden minded people have not the means and time to roam up the valleys of our Alaska regions, for here is a field of study in itself, as to just what share of the plant world will thrive in that climate. This writer has always been interested in why some plants fail to thrive in spite of so called ideal conditions and summarily observed much of interest, for he spent 7 days in Juneau, the capital of Alaska, from July 18 to 25th.
America in the raw is well demonstrated here for I failed to find or hear of one solitary gardener in that town save one greenhouse operator and a flower store serving the floral needs of the capital of the greatest territory belonging to the U.S. Fortunately for the homes in this city the Juneau Garden Club has proven itself very effective and a source of inspiration to home owners of that city. It was one of the experiences of this writer to be shown some of the members gardens. I could at once detect principles of good gardening yet every owner was aware that much more could be grown if there was someone who could supply things fit to be grown there.
It was with great delight that I saw my first really happy specimen of Rhododendron ferrugineum, also R. hirsutum both from the Alps of Switzerland where I had seen them grown in great quantities in the high pasture regions of the Alps. Here they were evidently well suited in the Alaska climate of Juneau in the garden of Mrs. Maxine Williams who pointed out that they had come many years ago from Henry Correvon of Geneva, Switzerland. This was another surprise to me for Mr. Correvon had been teaching a course on Alpine plants at my Alma Mater in Chatelaine near Geneva, more than 50 years ago. The Correvon seeds distributed by an agency in New Jersey have proven very satisfactory here and the ladies of the Juneau Garden Club will learn of the Swiss Alpine flora and its use as garden material.
Along with the Swiss rhododendrons I was also shown the Chinese R. fastigiatum a much younger plant but thrifty and perfectly happy. This made me think that there would be many more of the Himalayan rhododendrons that would thrive here if given a chance. Personally I would not hesitate to try many of the species growing at altitudes of 10 to 14 thousand feet in the mountains of Yunnan and Szechwan. Such species for instance as R. flavidum, intricatum, hippophaeoides, racemosum and oleifolium, nearly all of the lapponicum series would be at home and the lovely R. pemakoense surely would do itself proud. The group of R. neriiflorum from the highest ranges would prove extremely interesting in the region of Juneau as well as Ketchikan.
The world of rhododendrons has much in store for Alaskan gardeners once they get their attention focused on this king of garden shrubs. Rock gardening is the most attractive and suitable phase for gardeners in that climate, since the rocks are plentiful everywhere. In a small garden, rhododendrons do not demand much attention after the soil is made suitable for them and since the country has immense bogs where ideal soil can be obtained in unlimited quantities an ideal situation could be created. I think Ericaceous plants will thrive like nowhere else in the world.
My trip on Mount Roberts revealed the charms of several Ericaceous plants such as Cassiope mertensiana phylodocce in green and white also that unforgettable Loiseleuria procumbens or so called creeping Alaska azalea. These were found in mats over rocky ground, covered with tiny pink flowers some varying to cream and white, and none over 1 inch tall. Along with this Ericaceous gem there were equally fine mounds of Acaulis very much the same as I saw on the high Swiss mountains near the Matterhorn in 1939. A little gentian totally unlike the G. acaulis of the Swiss mountains was observed on Mt. Juneau. It had the typical form of gentian flowers but growing on two inch stems in clusters of 3 flowers of greenish blue color, a rather inconspicuous showing. The small Primula coneifolia bloomed freely in the rocky moraines of the brightest carmine pink color a lovely little item wherever grown.
It seems to me however that the Alaska geranium is perhaps the leading perennial of the region, for everywhere in the lowlands are masses of plants with large magenta blue flowers, the plants here growing perhaps 2 feet tall. On my climb of Mt. Roberts I also found them all along the trail above timberline and the higher the altitude the dwarfer the geranium, and at snowline I saw plants peeping above the rocks barely two inches high yet with flowers fully as large as those in the low lands all of a good blue color instead of magenta tints. In the city gardens one observed everywhere great clumps of Lilium umbellatum all near 5 ft. high with masses of large orange red flowers of extremely luscious tint and vigor such as I had never seen elsewhere. Trees in gardens and parks about the city were rather scarce. The one in greatest use is the European mountain ash. It seems to be very much at home here and the berries were the greatest attraction for birds, which seem to assemble here in the fall for banqueting on these berries. Cotoneasters for one reason or another were almost absent in the local gardens yet the horizontalis species would add much to the berry supply of the region if planted out in sunny spots, for they are fully as robust as the ash trees. Vacciniums on the mountains bore much fruit although nothing like our own huckleberry. I fail to see a reason why they were omitted from the rock gardens as their neat habit of growth and the foliage are genuinely handsome, and I was told the fall coloring of the leaves is even more brilliant than most flowers.
I observed quite a few small bushes of R. catawbiense and some few hybrids of it, none looking very happy or setting buds, simply because such plants were too small to produce results and it would have been far wiser to choose strong flowering size bushes able to put up with the short growing season prevailing there. The cost would naturally be greater but at least it produces the expected floral display, and thereby increases one's esteem for gardening. So my advice would be to secure flowering specimens only and plant them into wind sheltered situations for it is not the intensity of cold that cripples plants here but the powerful winter gales. With very few sunny days there is also a lot of wisdom in choosing sunny spots for rhododendrons in this climate.
Within a few years the planting of hardy rhododendrons will prove the best investments the gardening world has ever made in that part of the world. However be sure to select hardy kinds only from honest dealers since the fly by night operator may blight and cool off the unwary gardener as they have done elsewhere.