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Bob Bastian gets up close and personal with bitterroots during a botanizing hike in Devil's Garden. (Photo by Lee Juillerat)

Botanizing with Bob in The Devil's Garden

Flowers of all varieties colored the ground as we meandered through the brush on our short walk from our car to Devil’s Garden. Although our main goal was locating and measuring a large Ponderosa pine that Bob Bastian thought might be among the largest in Oregon, there were plentiful, and fanciful, diversions.

Bob and Niel Barrett took turns identifying flowers, most of the time agreeing, sometimes not, as our winding path crossed areas alive with flax, larkspur, arrowhead balsamroot, mule’s ears and varieties of buckwheats.

When we found some death camas, Bob, who taught botany, biology and other science classes at Klamath Union High for 31 years, told how Indians would unknowingly mix the poisonous death camas with other edible camas, and then wonder why some people eating the dried plants would mysteriously die.

It’s been 19 years since Bob, 73, retired from KU, but his interest in all things botanical is as fresh and vital as the flowers he found, greeting some like long-lost friends.

During our wanderings Bob told a tale of men arrested for a long-ago gold heist. According to legend, the gold has never been found. Some think it’s hidden in the Devil’s Garden, an amazing geological maze of nooks and crannies created by hydroclastic volcanic activity when magma erupted underneath standing water. The resulting volcanic tuff has created a wonderfully weird, sometimes Dr. Seuss-like landscape.

While hiking along the Garden’s outer perimeter, Bob said sections of fallen wire were remnants of fences used to keep cattle in, and out, of the Garden. Because the rock-hard sub-soil made digging fence posts impractical, the wire was connected by a series of posts placed in rock-filled barrels. Some of the barrels and posts remain, some of them upright, others fallen on their sides.

At one section we marveled at areas washed red with scarlet mimulus, but it wasn’t until we crossed onto gravelly soils farther upslope that Bob went bonkers.

“Look at them!” he hollered after spying a solitary bitterroot. Then another, then places teeming with flowers. “This is a feeding frenzy!” Then, spotting more as we moved slightly upslope, his shouts continued, “Look at that one! Oh, look at them all!”

They were everywhere, most of them blooming, others waiting their turn. According to “Common Plants of the Upper Klamath Basin,” a 2007 book that some regard as the “Bible” of Klamath Basin wildflowers, bitterroots are described as a “stemless perennial from a branched, fleshly taproot with a cluster of fleshy leaves that wither before flowering. Leaves are 1-2 inches long, linear and rounded. Flowers are 1-2 inches wide with six to nine white to dark pink sepals and 12 to 18 white to pink petals. Flowers are single on short stalks, appearing as if they are growing right out of the ground.”

We stalked the bitterroot, finding some with pinkish hues. Bob grabbed his camera and hugged the ground to get the best angles. We moved from plant to plant, delighted, especially after finding elk tracks.

Eventually satiated with bitterroots, we doubled back toward the Garden’s edge and Bob’s tall pine. With a top like the cap of a mushroom that rises above the surrounding trees, it’s easy to spot. Unlike the neighboring pines, Bob’s big boy seemed to retain its girth even near its top. With a circumference of 18 feet, 7 inches, it’s large but not a state record, so he didn’t bother to use his clinometer to measure its height.

Several days later, after telling his companion Marybeth Lee about the blooming bitterroots and other flowers, Niel and Marybeth made a return visit.

Bob, meanwhile, has been thumbing through plant guides trying to find two species of flowers he couldn’t identify. Here’s betting he will.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

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IF YOU GO

The Devil’s Garden is about a 45-minute drive from Klamath Falls. Take Highway 140 east to Bliss Road and turn left (north). After several miles, the Devil’s Garden area can be viewed from the road. At the Switchback Hill section of the OC&E-Woods Line State Park, turn left and continue past the parking area to Forest Road 22 for about a mile. Park off the road at either of two pullouts. Hike cross-country or, from the second pullout, follow the dirt road less than a half-mile to the edge of the Devil’s Garden.

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