Walter and the Oplopanax horridus

Carmen Jaramillo
cjaramillo@ptleader.com
Posted 8/7/19

Walter Vaux first saw a devil’s club plant when he was 11 years old in 1948.

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Walter and the Oplopanax horridus

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Walter Vaux first saw a devil’s club plant when he was 11 years old in 1948.

While hiking on Vashon Island, he slipped and reached out to grab onto something. What his hand found was not a branch, but the stalk of a devil’s club, a plant covered in noxious thorns on every surface, except its roots and berries.

It was much later in life when Vaux looked at the plant not as a noxious weed, but as an ornamental, one he wanted to plant in his garden. Today, at 81 years old, Vaux has five full-grown devil’s club specimens on his cliffside property at Cape George.

Growing the plants was tricky, Vaux said. They are only known to grow in the wild, and are an extremely uncommon garden plant. Vaux said he has never known another person to have one in their personal garden, or in a botanical garden, let alone five.

One is so large it towers over him, at 15 or 16 feet tall. This is the full height they are able to reach in the wild, in perfect conditions. One plant has leaves reaching 25 inches across, twice as large as they are known to get in the wild.

He said the secret to his success was cutting stalks from existing plants, and planting them in moist sand over the winter.

Vaux always had an interest in plants, ever since he was a young boy, taking water plants out of ponds for his junior high aquarium. He started his first garden in Utah, while he served in the military from 1962 to 1964, by walking out into the desert, sticking a spade in the ground and beginning a desert oasis garden.

His current garden has a wide range of native plants and flowers, which he said he tends to for about an hour and a half every day. This includes several types of ferns, like the sword, coastal and maidenhair ferns. He wants to complete his collection by planting oak and licorice ferns.

Vaux also has a rhubarb plant from which he makes jam, that he has had since it was given to him as a gift in 1965.

Everywhere he’s moved, the rhubarb plant has followed. He tends not to plant flowers in his gardens, he said, because it just becomes a field day for local deer.

Gardening is just one of Vaux’s many hobbies and the only with dangerous outcomes.

He also plays ukulele in a classical guitar style, and takes lessons twice a week. He plays in a local band with his wife, called the Olympic R&B Quartet, where “R&B” stands for Renaissance and Baroque. He’s also a part of the Kala Point Hiking Club, which hikes the Olympic Peninsula once a week.

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