Wild splendor in Alaska

Anna NaeserAspen, CO Colorado
The arctic iris (Iris setosa) grows wild in and around Seward, Alaska. (Anna Naeser/The Aspen Times )

To the poet Stanley Kunitz, gardening is about “helping to create a living poem.”Philosophically, the garden is a co-creation; it expresses something of the character of the place itself, something that any human intervening there must respect.” He calls a garden that doesn’t fit into its environment and reflect it in some way “an invasion, an occupation.” He was talking about his seaside garden. I thought about his words this week as I ambled along the alleys, streets and trails of Seward, Alaska, with my daughter (who makes her home there), her dog and my 4-year-old granddaughter.This is a place where the vegetation is so magnificent in July that I could use up my entire stock of superlatives in one fell swoop. When I use words like “lush,” “verdant” or “luxuriant,” this is my reference point. It rains more often than not; the local soil appears to be sandy shale and gravel, and the growing season is very short, but the daylight is so abundant for so many hours a day that plants grow exorbitantly in a short time, and the wildflowers are astonishing.

It’s a place where vacant lots and alleyways are often more interesting than the average yard and garden.My daughter has completely untended irises growing around her house, so beautiful that I at first refused to take her word for it that they are wild. It wasn’t until I saw them growing around the edges of the Resurrection Bay lagoon and the fringes of muskeg and ponds that I believed her. Along the lagoon, violet-striped white splashes dashed with gold at the throat of the arctic iris (Iris setosa) echoed the whites of the huge umbels of flowers of towering cow parsnip (Heracleum lanatum) and foamy plumes of tall goatsbeard (Aruncus sylvester). Clumps of sword-shaped iris leaves contrasted with the broad divided foliage of the cow parsnip and finely divided leaves of the goatsbeard. I marveled at how beautifully and gently the various blues, purples, violets and pinks of the arctic iris, beach pea and fireweed harmonized. The flowers grew around patches of native trees and shrubs, which probably have to be cut back regularly so they don’t overwhelm the herbaceous plants in this mixed “border” of entirely locally native plants.

The gardener’s job here is primarily to prevent the natural succession of plants.Either the imported Rugosa roses are the dandelions of roses in their habitat adaptability, or coastal rain forest is where they belong – and they have no business in arid Colorado, because I have never seen such billowing, exuberantly healthy ones as grew carelessly in yards all over Seward. The flowers were predominantly scented double purplish – reds and single whites, both equally beautiful, but it was the foliage and habit that was so outstanding. They made wonderful full and unpruned hedges. There’s something visually inviting and friendly feeling about a rose hedge even though it is, in actuality, a formidable barrier.The hedges that I liked the most though, looked like they were cut by the road crews with those machines that tear and chew off branches and provoke an outburst of unprintable and unladylike language from my soapbox. Like native roadside plants everywhere, the Alaskan bush grows right up to the pavement if it isn’t regularly cut back. The alders and other brushy trees and bushes in Seward grow very vigorously in their short allotted time.

On one paved road along the gravel verge, beyond a mowed swathe, the brush was topped around 5 or 6 feet high for several feet wide in an even strip with the sides trimmed straight up and down like a formal square-cut hedge. Behind that was the untouched bush. It was all in perfect proportion to the road, and somehow the torn edges of wood and leaves did not look as mutilated as when it is just slashed and hacked back. The effect was that of wilderness held back and contained by the hand of a gardener; a perfect expression of the poet’s philosophy.Anna gardens with her husband, Gerry, in Basalt. She notes that many of the plants she mentioned are familiar because they grow at higher elevations around the valley. You can get in touch with her at