Devil’s Club – worthy of primal contemplation

This morning, Tyrannosaurus Gus (the dog) and his people (Brian and I) enact our usual morning ritual. For me, this requires oatmeal. The ritual for Brian includes coffee in the yard at the crack of dawn. The ceremony for Gus involves supplicating in fetal position, waiting for the food dish to appear in its proper place. As the rite advances, the dog rings a bell on the back door. The proper response is for either human to clip his leash on and take him outside to do his business. Gus graces the cooperating human with a walk around the yard, the dog on alert for night-deposited goodies from neighbor cats or raccoons. It’s my turn today and I use this tour to admire Brian’s handiwork: a gorgeous habitat for birds, insects, gray squirrels (booooo) and people. I am very fortunate to live with a landscape designer/contractor who loves his work! (Brian Bodenbach, Biosphere Company)

His design philosophy calls for a foundation of native plants, augmented by a select assortment of compatible non-natives. When we bought our house 13 years ago, the large yard was mostly lawn. An ever-evolving work in progress, it now includes beautiful combinations of native and non-native plants.

While the dog takes me around the yard, we pause at my favorite station – under the apple tree facing our “forest”, where about five years ago, Brian planted a small – less than one foot tall – Devil’s Club (Oplopanax horridus). It is now taller than me, with several side branches. He planted Wild Ginger (Asarum caudatum) at its base, with Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum), Oak Fern (Gymnocarpium dryopteris), a purple-flowered variety of Hellebore (non-native) and a Hosta (Hosta sieboldiana ‘Elegans’ – non-native) with big, blue-gray leaves beside it, creating a pleasing yet primal scene.

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Devil’s Club (Oplopanax horridus) with Wild Ginger (Asarum caudatum) and Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum)

Devil’s Club was a mythic shrub to be feared in my childhood – I was warned to watch out for its piercing prickles. And the name alone was scary. But now, I love its prehistorically huge leaves and thorny fierceness. The large red seeds that replace its creamy-white flowers are stunning. Though I think most Northwesterners associate it with swampy forests, it grows other places as well; I see it on shady hillsides, perhaps where water seeps just under the surface. It does well in the heavy, silty soil in our yard, which tends to hold moisture. Its roots are valued by herbalists for their therapeutic qualities. It is rhizomatous, over time forming a loose grove of often-lanky plants. It loses its leaves in the winter, leaving a knob on the top of the stem where the next spring’s leaves will emerge. With its tall, stickery stems, it stands with its comrades like sentinels, guarding the entrance to … what? The Garden of Eden? A time-travel portal to the Mesozoic Era?

I ponder these possibilities while keeping a tight grip on Gus’ leash, lest he satisfy his primal appetite for cat poop. Then we turn back toward the house to prepare for the rest of this day’s journey.

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