Some are born to plant nerdiness. Some have plant nerdiness thrust upon them.
The stories of Richard Wiedhopf and Bill Salisbury are good examples of both.
Wiedhopf is the assistant dean of finance and facilities for the University of Arizona College of Pharmacy and curator of its Pharmacy Museum.
He’s also a self-described plant nerd.
“That means I can’t pass up any place that sells cactus or succulents,” says Wiedhopf, who is president of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society. “I have to buy something whether I need it or not.
“I think it’s just part of (my) genetic makeup.”
Unlike collectors of inanimate objects, plant nerds, who are more gently called “hobbyists” or “collectors,” often end up literally growing their collections. They not only care for their plants, but they help them multiply.
“I have to propagate plants,” Wiedhopf says to explain why he ends up with more plants even when he’s not buying them. “Then what do you do after you have all of these seedlings? You can’t throw out a seedling.”
The result of Wiedhopf’s passion is a yard and several greenhouses jampacked with thousands of plants in the ground and in pots.
His favorites–he was limited to mentioning his top three–include agaves, barrel cacti and trichocereus hybrids, also known as torch cacti.
Wiedhopf started collecting some 35 years ago when, while living in the Los Angeles area, he rescued a discarded prickly pear. “The fascination started right there,” he recalls, “and it hasn’t stopped.”
Bill Salisbury admits he probably never would have gotten into collecting succulents and cacti if it wasn’t for the house he and his wife moved into from Chicago 14 years ago.
“The previous owner was very much into cacti,” says Salisbury, “so I kind of expanded on that.”
Today he has nearly 200 barrel cacti and more than 30 saguaros in his Foothills homestead. There are several varieties of prickly pear, agave and yucca. And those are plants just in the ground.
“I also have close to a couple hundred potted cacti,” he says.
He’s drawn by the way succulents look. “They’re very interesting plants and, boy, they all have flowers at one time or another,” he says.
Plus, he likes that they don’t require a lot of attention. That gives him time to do other things, including creating some of the garden art found among his plants.
Salisbury doesn’t consider himself a plant nerd because he doesn’t know the scientific names of the cactus he collects. “I don’t know the technical stuff,” he admits, “but what I like, I buy.”
Both Wiedhopf and Salisbury feed their hobby as members of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society. They both suggest that newbie succulent hobbyists would do well to start there for advice and support.
“We have over a thousand members,” says Wiedhopf. “Typically there’s this broad spectrum of members from rank novices to extraordinary experts.”
Monthly meetings, garden tours and the biennial conference coming up next weekend cover all sorts of succulent species and general care information.
Members also qualify for major discounts on purchases of the cacti and succulents that the group rescues from construction sites.
Salisbury says working on the rescue crew “is one way to see how these plants are growing in the desert and you can try to emulate that in the yard.”
He adds that specialty cactus nurseries around town also provide a wealth of information for the beginner collector. Many of those nursery owners are members of the society.
Wiedhopf cautions that catching the collecting bug can lead to nerdiness. “There’s I don’t know how many species of cactus,” he says. “You can’t run out. You can’t get them all.”