Zoo doo and the alpaca

"I think that we are zoned for one small farm animal," said Melanie Grimes, a Queen Anne resident who somehow owns half an acre on top of the Hill. "I have been threatening to get one of those alpaca, but I don't know because you need to get two - they need companions."

Threatening to get an alpaca?

Nasturtiums overflow from nearby ceramic pots, the scent of Chinese takeout wafts out of the bright green kitchen and Birken-stock sandals peek from every corner and crevice of this airy house. Pick up a paintbrush, write a short poem and meet the Grimes family.

"The interesting thing about this property is that someone laid out a pretty good landscape," explained Charles Grimes, husband of Melanie and the family's gardener. "They put in the rockery, but when we bought the place, all of the yard was covered in blackberries."

"It was just grass," chimed in Melanie. "We dug all of the black- berries away and unburied the rockery."

The rockery, an 80-year-old rock wall, snakes through the backyard and breaks the property into varied levels. The story goes that the 1920s owners also owned a bar, possibly a brothel, in Pioneer Square. When sailors came up short on their debts, they had to report to the house and haul rocks.

Today, the wall serves as a great place to cultivate tumbling plant life.

"Mostly I try to grow things that trail down it like climbing roses," said Charles. He points to a flame-colored crocosmia tucked within the historic wall. "These are great in the rockery; they cascade over in this beautiful arc."

Crocosmia - from the Latin croceus, meaning saffron colored - are South African flowers. It seems fitting that 80 years ago salt-blooded sailors prepared the home for such a worldly bloom. This theme continues with Japanese columbine, a smiling flower that appears giddy, and a cluster of stoic hollyhocks, started from seed. Birds are chirping, squirrels scurry and I am humming the lyrics to the Alice in Wonderland song "Golden Afternoon":

Little bread-and-butterflies kiss the tulips,
and the sun is like a toy balloon.
There are get up in the morning glories,
in the golden afternoon.

Then I see it.

"I didn't grow it," said Charles. "It just appeared."

Swaying amidst the climbing roses, English arbors and a kind-looking fig tree is a 20-foot jungle plant.

"At first it just looked like rhubarb," said Melanie. "But then another tier came out of its center."

I picture the scene from "Alien" where the scary, small head screeches out of the scary, big head.

"It grew, like, a foot a week," added Charles.

The afternoon is not so golden, and the theme from "The Twilight Zone" replaces my cheery tune.

"Eventually there were, like, three tiers of huge, rhubarb-looking leaves stacked every 3 feet," said Melanie. "It was like Jack and the Beanstalk."

We gaze at the tree as they relate the story.

"Huge stalks went up and up," said Melanie, animated as she gestured with her hands. "That was when it got to be epic."

"It had nice fronds, so I just let it grow," Charles offered defensively. "This year it just shot up like crazy."

The fast-growing "rhubarb" has returned for three years in a row. This year is the most memorable.

"So then at the top of the 20-foot shoot this white flower blooms," continued Melanie. "It had a 3-foot diameter, and there was this gigantic white thing. The top had this big white flower and big dinosaur fronds."

Dinosaur fronds? The Grimeses pause to rest.

"The trunk of it looks like a tree," added Melanie. "It was really magnificent watching that thing grow."

That thing turns out to be Devil's Club, a wonder weed used to treat everything from stomachaches to psoriasis. Now grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Science Foundation and possibly the National Institutes of Health are funding research to assess the plant's effectiveness against tuberculosis.

Here's the catch: most Devil's Club grows to about 10 feet, half the size of the one in the Grimes backyard.

"Maybe it was the zoo doo?" offered Melanie. "You know - com-posted herbivore poop from the zoo."

Of course! The Devil's Club took root in a plot of land enriched with zoo doo.

"Normally I am pretty fussy about what I let grow," said Charles. "But just this once I decided to let it be and see what happened."

Funny how those "just once" scenarios lead to some of our most memorable experiences. Once, when Melanie, co-owner with her husband of MJ Feet, the famous Birkenstock store in Seattle, was 23 years old, she tried to get a job as a waitress and couldn't.

"It was during the Boeing recession and I had bad feet, so I wore Birks," she remembered. "I started ordering them for people, and it became my summer job."

That "just once" turned into a shoestore chain and made Melanie and Charles Grimes the first U.S. importers of Birkenstocks.

Once, when I was an eighth-grader attending to Seattle fashion, the Birkenstocks in my closet were the coolest thing I owned. Melanie's "just once" experience affirmed my "totally hip" standing in middle school and introduced me to the concept of comfy shoes. That's the thing about those "just once" scenarios: you never know where they will lead.

"We just let it roll," concluded Melanie. "If odd things do pop up, we try not to cut 'em down."

Words to live by?

The sun is setting in the garden; city-dwelling alpaca and the words zoo doo zip through my brain.

While this 20-foot "Paleozoic" plant will probably not end world hunger or the war in Iraq, it is interesting to realize that it began as a small shoot in someone's backyard; the only reason that we know about it is because someone let it grow - just once.

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