Desert Gardener: The upside-down trees of Alaska's Glacier Gardens
A rainforest in Alaska sounds far-fetched, but it does exist. This past August, I was fortunate enough to take a cruise through the Inside Passage of Alaska, and one of the highlights of my trip was visiting Glacier Gardens, part of Alaska's rainforest area, and the Tongass National Rainforest, the largest remaining temperate rainforest on earth. Both are located in the southeast portion of Alaska.
It is hard to imagine that the gardens, which cover more than 50 acres of land, were begun by a husband and wife who were interested in starting a nursery business. Steve and Cindy Bowhay purchased 6 1/2 acres of land back in 1984. The acreage had been destroyed by a tremendous landslide, and mud, up-turned trees, and a stream that had been rechanneled were all that greeted the couple. I'm sure the local town folk of Juneau thought they were crazy to try and do anything with such a horrible mess. However, the Bowhays had a vision for reclaiming the land and turning it into their own personal garden paradise.
They built ponds, waterfalls, and areas for their nursery's greenhouses. The beauty of the natural landscape, with its lush variety of plants, lichen and moss hanging from low-growing shrubs, alpine trees, and flowering plants, such as rhododendrons, azaleas, and Alaska's state flower, forget-me-nots, created a picture-perfect spot. As their glacier garden grew and matured, the couple decided to share their garden paradise with the public. Thus began Glacier Gardens Rainforest Adventure.
I enjoyed my tour of Glacier Gardens and especially liked the upside-down tree planters scattered throughout the property. The idea for recycling trees which had been cleared from the area, or uprooted during the landslide, came from Steve Bowhay. By accident, while removing tree stumps, he slammed one stump, trunk first, into the muddy ground. The tree remained upright, with its dead roots stretching overhead in all directions. Steve thought the roots would make a wonderful planter and began trying to figure out how to make his idea work. He eventually came up with the use of fish netting to line the inside of the roots and moss to form a planter. Soon masses of flowering plants cascading over roots of upside-down tree “planters” could be seen throughout the garden. Over a hundred “planters” later, the garden is indeed scenic. As we drove around, I enjoyed seeing wild iris, lupine, skunk cabbage, fireweed, bunchberries, salmon berries, Douglas asters, and monkshood, to name a few of the plants. The lush green of native undergrowth, shrubs, and tall trees contrasted nicely with the bright blooms in the oversized “planters.”
Once our garden tour was finished, we drove up Thunder Mountain and had a wonderful view of the valley and the town of Juneau. Too soon, the bus moved on down the mountain and back to Glacier Gardens.
From the gardens, we drove through Mendenhall Valley to Mendenhall Glacier. Being able to drive up close and view the tremendous size and beauty of this slow-moving sheet of ice was breathtaking.
As we journeyed back to the cruise ship, our guide told an interesting story about how Alaska got its state flag. In 1927, when Alaska was still a territory, a contest was held for Alaska's school children to design a flag. One Eskimo boy named John Bell Benson, from Chignik, drew a flag that had a dark-blue background and seven stars making up the Big Dipper. He drew an eighth star, the North Star, in the upper right-hand corner, to represent Alaska. His design won the contest and was Alaska's territorial flag until 1959, when Alaska became our 49th state. John's flag was then adopted as the official state flag of Alaska and has flown over schools, libraries and homes in Alaska ever since.
The natural beauty and rich history of Alaska made my cruise a trip I will never forget.
Beverly Peterson is a Master Gardener and member of Yuma Garden Club. She can be reached at email@example.com. This column is sponsored by the Federated Garden Clubs of Yuma.