Juneau’s known for many things — whales, salmon, bears, mountains — and more recently an internationally recognized arboretum.
Jensen-Olson Arboretum, Juneau’s 13-year-old arboretum, is formally recognized for its collection of primrose, the largest documented collection in North America. And much of that is the doing of its long-term manager, Merrill Jensen, who’s retiring in December after 13 years of raising the arboretum from its nascent roots.
“It’s brought national recognition. For being such a young institution that’s a big deal. Most collection holders are big old institutions,” Jensen said. “You ask what my proudest accomplishment was, it’s getting national collection status for such a young garden.”
There’s been a garden running there since 1904, Jensen said. The family that claimed the spot grew vegetables there, selling them for a tidy profit.
From the ground up
Jensen is the arboretum’s first manager and was able to shape the bones of the arboretum as it was inherited from Caroline Jensen, the last owner of the property. At the time, he’d worked at three other public gardens after deciding to go into the field as an intelligence specialist for the Air Force, stationed in Hawaii.
“I was looking for vacation information and found the job,” Jensen said, joking on their shared last name, despite there being no relation. “It’s Jensen-Olson Arboretum and I thought, that might be an in.”
Caroline Jensen set the land aside along with an endowment, facilitated by the Southeast Alaska Land Trust. When she passed away, the city hired Jensen to get the program off the field.
“It was her amazing garden that she gifted to the city, but it didn’t have anything to make it a public garden,” Jensen said in a phone interview. “She was incredibly generous with what she left us, but we didn’t have anything in regard to it being a public facility.”
The garden was in good shape, but it wasn’t built up for public access, Jensen said.
“I got to started this from scratch. There was nothing in place. It was the property essentially and. It was a private residence that Caroline wanted to turn into a public garden,” Jensen said. “We kind of fast-tracked everything. We’re in a better place after 13 years than some of the gardens I’ve worked at were after 15, 20, 25 years.”
The arboretum, located off of Glacier Highway in the part of Juneau commonly called Out the Road, is one of the more unusually positioned arboretums in the country, Jensen said.
“When the city originally hired for the position, they didn’t know what the arboretum was going to be or could be,” said Michele Elfers, deputy manager of City and Borough Juneau Parks and Recreation Department. “He made a high-quality world-class public garden.”
The arboretum provides seeds, particularly from primrose plants, to many other gardens across the country and around the world, including many gardens in Europe.
“At the high point, we had 215 species and cultivars,” Jensen said. “The vagaries of weather have kind of hammered it, and we’re down to 180 after last summer.”
A hot summer in 2019, followed in 2020 by a torrential summer, has had a deleterious effect on the garden, Jensen said. If climatic extremes continue, Jensen said, the arboretum is going to have to adjust to handle it. Seed output was cut significantly, Jensen said, both from weather and lack of pollinating insects. Recent winters with rapid transitions from warm to below freezing temperatures without the benefit of snow cover to protect delicate plants have also affected the arboretum.
“I am going to miss the view. When you get to see this every day for 13 and a half years, it’s going to be hard to walk away from,” Jensen said. “Having the whales out the front door and the bears out the back door has been special. And the unbelievable quiet you can out here in the winter. Instead of hearing a pin drop, you can hear the tide change.”
Jensen and his wife, who live on-site at the arboretum, will be moving to Oregon. There are things he’ll miss, he said, but there are things he won’t miss, too.
“I won’t miss the no-see-ums,” Jensen said. “They’re just insidious tiny little things.”
Jensen said he looks forward to more bike riding, drone photography, volunteering and perhaps vacationing in Alaska.
And for the arboretum?
The city is considering, in an open-ended sort of fashion, enhancements to the programming offered there. The arboretum — and Jensen — have pulled their weight, during the pandemic, Elfers said.
“I’ve only worked with Merrill for about a year and a half, but he’s such a part of our community,” Elfers said. “He’s really made our arboretum a gem of our parks system.”
The search for the next manager is underway right now, Elfers said. The city is currently accepting applications through the end of September, when they’ll evaluate the candidates.
Jensen said that they’d considered the idea of expanding facilities on the premises to have more indoor space for classes, workshops and weddings.
“We don’t have anything indoors for weddings in case of crappy weather,” Jensen said. “We had a horrible one back in 2010. The skies opened up and poured buckets, and they just melted.”
While this summer has been among the wettest on record, the arboretum has been one of the few city facilities to remain open amid the pandemic.
“It’s one of the gems of our park system. Really this year, this public garden really shined out for what it could be for the community,” Elfers said. “For a while, it was the only facility open for the city during the pandemic. When the library was shut down and the pool was shut down, the arboretum was open.”