The 49th state isn’t exactly known for tropical orchids. But that hasn’t stopped the Alaska Botanical Garden from raising them. It’s one of many unique projects that the non-profit has undertaken since opening its doors a quarter of a century ago.
Fans whir inside the greenhouse that houses the orchids. They’re helping distribute a blanket of warm air. To the right, a diagonal wall of windows lets in light. Shelves brimming with the green foliage of tropical orchids line the cement walls. Alaska Botanical Garden executive director Mike Monterusso carefully clasps the stem of a yellow flower between two fingers.
“I had a vision for having orchids, but then we got this donation, so it’s all happening very quickly,” Monterusso said. They came from an individual in Anchorage.
Monterusso says what’s more important to their mission than the tropical orchids are displaying the hearty ones that grow naturally in Alaska. Outside we find a patch of spotted lady slippers at the end of their bloom. The flowers are tinier and more delicate than their tropical cousins. Right now, around 15 to 20 percent of the garden’s plants are native to Alaska. But Monterusso hopes to increase that number.
“What botanical gardens did, you know, decades or even hundreds of years ago is collect local plants and put them on display for education,” Monterusso said. “And that’s something that I want to make sure we don’t overlook.”
Monterusso says the Garden aims to do two main things: to operate as a museum that preserves, labels and catalogs plants and to teach the public about plants and their connection to them. Right now, they’re operating a summer camp that teaches kids about nutrition and ecology.
A group of elementary-age children stand around a table peeling and cutting multi-colored carrots for a snack. On the other side of their tent, pink tubs filled with different soil types sit atop a table. Monterusso says the heart of their curriculum is teaching them to value diversity.
“Diversity is, you can imagine, is good in the sense of nutrition, not only be aware of what’s around you and what you can use for food as a food source, but why one thing might be good at one time and another thing is good at another time,” Monterusso said. “And what the benefits are associated with those.”
In the heritage garden, created in 2015 to celebrate Anchorage’s centennial, giant cabbages grow in the back of a pick-up truck. Rows of broccoli are labeled with a skeleton to show that they help build strong bones. The Garden donates some vegetables to a food bank and a kids school lunch program. Others are given to one of the many volunteers like Kim Sherry, who works in the garden today deadheading flowers.
“I’ve got a home garden. I’ve been doing vegetables and perennials and putting in annuals pretty much every year,” Sherry said. “But there’s just always more you can learn to improve your own gardening skills, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to not only get some good information but give back.”
Monterusso said volunteers are essential to help maintain the gardens. Outside the vegetable garden in the surrounding spruce forest, native plants like forget-me-nots and wild roses fill the forest floor. In the gardens, red fern-leaf peonies and vibrant blue poppies bloom. A bumble bee buzzes near an ornamental raspberry plant that’s about to flower.
“Each flower will have a bee in it and this whole bank here just is abuzz,” Monterusso said.
Over the last 25 years, the garden has added buildings and a research plot and expanded their programming.
“Gardens around the country have been in place for decades, or if you go into overseas you’ll go to gardens that have been around for hundreds of years literally,” Monterusso said. “So we’re still pretty young, still pretty new. But a lot has happened here in those 25 years.”
They’re not done growing. Monterusso hopes to connect with the other two botanical gardens in Alaska to bring traveling exhibits to the state. And he hopes to start a holiday light event that would turn the spruce forest into a winter wonderland during the darkest time of year.