Sarasota Succulent Society ages gracefully

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All photos David Belew/Catalyst

Most days of the week, the property lies still. Aloe trees and live oaks slowly creep closer to a sun silently casting light onto an ordered jumble of cacti. By Monday morning though, the property slides into a flurry of activity as members of the Sarasota Succulent Society come to tend the plants, build new beds and sell the fruits of their labors for a few bucks.

The Sarasota Succulent Society is tucked away on the corner of Myrtle and 38th Street, marked only by a small sign on one of its grow houses. Its mission involves studying the culture of succulents, or plants with thick leaves that store water, under local conditions and making the knowledge gained through this study more accessible to the local community.

The late Walter Sparkman founded the society in 1950. Nancy Wellford, who has served as the president of the society since 1996, said “He was growing bulbs and very different things when he decided he wanted to try succulents. About three or four friends joined him to research it.” After a while Sparkman’s yard became full of cacti and they decided needed to start a society. Sparkman’s house is still standing and lies at the center of the property. Built in 1938, the home is an exemplar of Depression-era architecture and has been designated a historic site by the city of Sarasota. In the past, the Society rented out the house but at one point some intoxicated tenants cut down some the specimens with a machete. Now the house serves as a clubhouse and the society is using grants to restore it. Inside is a meeting room, a reference library and a lending library.

The rest of the property seems to unfold around Sparkman’s house. The small rolling hills are particularly striking given the flatness of the local area. According to the society’s website, rocks were taken from the digging of a drainage ditch to create the varied landscape. Different hills hold different gardens, all of which bristle with a plethora of succulents. Tucked between the hills are several screened-in cactus houses containing some of the larger plants.

Wellford explained that, with succulents, a cutting from a large plant would continue to grow on its own. Cuttings are often taken from the mature plants kept in the cactus house so that they can be repotted and sold. Similarly, a giant aloe tree knocked down by a storm a few years back lives on in several smaller aloe trees salvaged from its remains. These kinds of endeavors are kind of trial and error for the Society, whose members are not official botanists — everyone seems to approach the gardens with a desire to learn, however.

Cacti from all around the country populate the beds and houses. One of the Society’s biggest problems is cataloging all of them. The reference library is a great aid, but so many cacti have been planted over the years that it is hard to keep track of them. Right now, a new member who is working for a Master Gardener certification is trying to get it all down.

Wellford emphasized that the society would love to have student volunteers and that the society is always trying to further education. The Society annually gives out a $500 scholarship to a student working with plants, but Wellford noted that they have given the scholarship to USF and MCC students yet never to a New College student.

The Society is open from 9:00 a.m. to noon every Monday and every third Saturday of the month. All are welcome. The Society also has educational meetings on the first Tuesday of the month at 7:30 p.m. at the Sarasota Garden Club. Membership is $10 for those interested in volunteering or $15 otherwise, but one doesn’t have to be a member to come to the meetings or to volunteer.

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