The Jensen-Olson Arboretum is a rare seaside garden with the shores of the Inside Passage in front and the Tongass Mountains behind.



Where to Find the Largest Collection Of Primroses

Located Just Outside Of Downtown Juneau, The Jensen-Olson Arboretum Blesses The Land With New Blossoms Every Month Or So

The Jensen-Olson Arboretum Overlooking The Inside Passage In Juneau [Photo Credit: Merrill Jensen]

Merrill Jensen is that rare person that literally found a job with his name on it. “I’d always dreamed of living in Alaska, ever since I visited my uncle in Fairbanks when I was a kid,” Jensen says. “The way I ended up here was pure dumb luck.”

Jensen, who began as a “weed-puller,” was the veteran administrator of three botanical gardens in the Lower 48. “My wife and I were planning a visit to Juneau, and I went to the city website,” he recalls. “There was an icon on the homepage for jobs in Juneau, I clicked, and there was a notice looking for a director for the city’s botanical garden.”

Its name came as a bit of a shock: the Jensen-Olson Arboretum. “It literally had my name on it. And I found out it was only posted the day before,” Merrill says. “I call it Plant Karma.”

The Jensens came to Juneau in 2007, a year that broke the region’s annual snowfall record. “There were four feet of snow on the ground when I got here,” he says. That spring, when the snow melted, Jensen got another surprise, this time a pleasant one.

“That first spring the flowers just started popping out of the ground. It was a real WOW moment.”

Many of the flowers were varieties of primroses, and before long Jensen realized he had something really special. “We’ve got more than 200 cultivars of the Primula genus,” he says. It took him a couple of years to file all the paperwork, but the arboretum is now accredited as the largest collection of primrose varieties in the United States by the American Public Gardens Network. 

Thriving In The Garden Is The Himalayan Blue Poppy [Photo Credit: Merrill Jensen]
Colorful Blossoms During Spring In Juneau [Photo Credit: Merrill Jensen]

Another very special species Jensen found thriving in the garden was the Himalayan blue poppy. “These things can’t be grown down south,” Jensen says, referring to the Lower 48. “Lots of people have tried.” The gorgeous blue flowers are native to the upper slopes of the Himalayan Mountains. Primroses also originated in the Himalayas at 15,000 to 16,000 feet. “Apparently the climate there is similar to Juneau at sea level.”

The Jensen-Olson Arboretum is located about 23 miles outside of downtown Juneau, on a protected south-facing cove. “We’re classified as a cool maritime climate,” Jensen explains. “The temperature doesn’t fluctuate a lot. It’s 58 and cloudy for days on end.”

On the other hand, the area doesn’t get as much rain as downtown Juneau. “The Tlingit people, who’ve lived in Southeast Alaska for generations, couldn’t understand why the white men were settling where Juneau is now,” he says. “They said it had the worst weather in the area. Of course we get the occasional sunny day, and everyone goes manic.”

The cove was homesteaded back in 1904 by a gold miner named Olson and his two daughters, who carried on into the 1960s after their father’s death. “They began the vegetable garden, which is still in its original location,” Jensen says. “We grow the best carrots on the planet. Incredibly sweet.”

The property’s next owner, Caroline Jensen, began planting flowers. “Her vision was to see what would grow. She was always adding new species,” Jensen says. “People are astounded by what we have growing here… thousands of plants from all over the world.” Caroline donated her garden to the city, to be open to the public for free, year-round.

Merrill carries on the founder’s mission by constantly looking for new things to grow. “Every trip outside, I come back with a suitcase full of plants to try,” he says. 

A Garden Always Growing New Flowers [Photo Credit: Merrill Jensen]
Primula Denticulata Flowers At Peak Of Blossom [Photo Credit: Merrill Jensen]
Any Garden Needs Upkeep. Here We See Sowing In The Soil [Photo Credit: Merrill Jensen]

“Something’s blooming from April right into October,” says Kim Garnero, an officer in the Friends of the Arboretum association, as well as serving on the advisory board for the city. “The colors really catch everybody by surprise. We even have great fall color, when the mountain ash that Caroline planted color up.”

The arboretum is a rare seaside garden, with the shores of the Inside Passage in front and the Tongass Mountains behind. Across the water the peaks of the Chilkat Range are topped with snow year-round, providing a superb setting for the floral display.

Merrill Jensen’s favorite part of being director of the garden, he says, is “spending time on my stomach, photographing the flowers, the bees, the birds, and listening to birdsong. This is a place to slow down and spend time with the nature.”

Jensen describes the garden as park-like, a favorite with both flower-lovers and birders. “We get both seabirds and forest birds. When the road isn’t busy you can hear the tide change. The quiet and stillness are amazing …  you can feel the pulse of the planet.”

For Kim Garnero, each season at the garden offers something different. “The blooms are always changing,” she says. “It’s like a whole different garden every three weeks or so. And when the whales start playing in the channel out front… That’s something you never forget.”

Renee Wright

A graduate of Franconia College in Social Psychology, Renee has worked as Travel Editor for Charlotte Magazine and has written three travel guidebooks for Countryman Press among other writing assignments. She enjoys food and camping. 

Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve

Make Sure To Stay At: 

Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, which consists of 48,000 acres of river bottom land of the Chilkat, Kleheni, and Tsirku Rivers. The boundaries were designated to include only areas important to eagle habitation. It also sustains and protects the natural salmon runs.

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