- Education and Science
Rockhound and Botanist Extraordinaire
Harrison Yocum lives in Tucson, Arizona. He founded the Tucson Botanical Gardens, and is a recognized expert in botany. Last time we talked about it, he was still maintaining the indoor plants at Tucson International Airport. He's in his 80's, I think. But he still maintains his own yard.
Harrison keeps a yard full of cacti and succulents. At one time, he also had 125 species of palms. He also has a greenhouse attached to his home, where he used to keep the palms in the winter.
Whenever Harrison goes anyplace, he likes to dress in this Ranger uniform, and he also wears silver and turquoise jewelry made by Native Americans. He has a good collection. He even showed up at my kids' weddings dressed like this! :) He is wearing two bracelets, rings, a belt buckle, and a bolo tie.
This photo was taken at the international convention of the Cactus and Succulent Society, where he was a speaker.
(Photo credits Pat Goltz)
In addition to his work in botany and his rockhounding trips, Harrison is skilled in other areas. He plays piano and organ, and has composed nearly 200 waltzes and polkas for piano. They are in the style of the famous Strauss family. Like their waltzes, his have many musical ideas. He will often play those if asked, and likes to perform them at parties.
He speaks at least two languages, and reads three or four. He maintains a library of thousands of books on botany, some of them rare. Since some of them are also in French or Spanish, he probably is able to read them.
Lately, he has turned to photography and videography. He has stopped collecting rocks on his rockhounding trips, because he has so many. Instead, he takes pictures and makes videos.
He has also recently traveled to Europe, particularly Germany, and he took pictures there as well. He subsequently traveled to Alaska, taking friends with him.
He teaches landscaping classes at Pima Community College, not for credit, but just for fun. The nice thing about attending these classes is that he generously gives the students plant cuttings they can take home and plant. His approach to landscaping is a bit unusual, which you can readily see when you look at his yard. The photo on the right is Euphorbia antisyphilitica. It is considered medicinal for syphilis, hence, the name. Euphorbias are succulents and have milky, highly alkaline juice. This was a gift from Harrison. I got just a handful of stems, and planted them. This plant is now several feet in diameter and probably has thousands of stems. This shows clusters of tiny flowers on one of the stems.
This is a small part of Harrison's yard.
I will describe some of the plants.
The round cacti with golden thorns are called golden barrel cactus. Ferocactus. sp. The fruit is edible, and when green, it tastes like lime. When yellow, it tastes like lemon. The texture is a little firmer than the flesh of a green pepper. The tiny seeds are black and edible. Quite delicious! When I am out hiking in a place away from roads, I often will pick a fruit or two and eat them. You can learn more about this cactus by visiting my web site: Barrel Cactus
In the lower left hand corner, looking like green spikes sticking up, you can see Stapelia. These are also called Carrion Flowers. The flower looks like a star, and has a putrid odor. The purpose is to attract flies, which are captured and eaten.
Toward the back, just to the right of the middle, a whitish (light green) stalk of a cactus, called a Senita (Old Man in Spanish), has a delicious edible fruit. Unfortunately, I've never had the privilege of tasting one. The reason for the name is the long white hairs, looking like the hair of an old man. These take the place of thorns.
On the lower right, just to the left of two barrel cacti which are in the sun, is an Astrophytum. These have large beautiful yellow flowers.
On the extreme left, about halfway down you can see just a little of an Agave. One species, Agave americana, is also known as a Century Plant. The reason is that it is several years before they bloom. If a particular species of Agave develops a stalk out of the center, it will put all of its inner mass into the stalk and then die. The Agave is the source of the flesh used to make Tequila. It must be carefully distilled, because the flesh is normally very caustic. Agaves are also the source of the new sweetener, Agave Nectar. Harvesting the plant for either kills the plant. There are now Agave farms in Mexico. Warning: do NOT taste an unprocessed Agave. It will blister your tongue! You can learn more about Agaves here on my other web site: Agave Agaves that develop stalks away from the center will live on, and produce new stalks in the future. The Agave stalk grows very quickly. It will begin in late spring and is at full height, usually, in August. The stalk can be more than ten feet tall. Some people claim that if it is very quiet, you can hear them growing!
Mountains of rock with little niches
Harrison has three very large piles of rocks, well over six feet high, on the southern side of his yard. He plants cacti in the niches between the rocks. The rocks come from his rockhounding trips.
I have permission to come to his yard any time, even unannounced, to take pictures. On this occasion, the Texas Rainbow cactus was in bloom. This is the flower.
One day, when I was at Harrison's house, I noticed that his night-blooming Cereus was about to bloom, so I rushed home and got a tripod and a flashlight, and went back.
The night-blooming Cereus only blooms one or two nights a year. It is pollinated by moths, and the odor of the flowers is heavenly!
Harrison came out and, with great glee, held the flashlight for me so I could take some pictures. I also use the camera's flash attachment, of course, but the flashlight can produce some very interesting results. This is one of the pictures I got.
Childlike sense of humor
Harrison loves fun. He has his own vocabulary for his rockhounding efforts. For example, if you are an inexperienced rockhound, he calls you a Pebble Puppy. He draws silly maps to show people how to get to the site for the day. He also tells us that if we collect enough quartz and pintz we can become a fullblown rockhound. He also tells us that some minerals we find are leverite. That stands for "leave her right there." In other words, not worth hauling home.
He often makes silly noises like a cow, and he will occasionally wear a hat that has antlers on it.
Whenever we visit, we have lots of laughter.
The image is what he calls a bird's nest. He usually uses a geode for the nest, but this one is a shell. He puts nodules in them for the eggs. Often, these are found on the Day Ranch. The Day Ranch is where the former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor grew up. I have been there on rockhunting trips. He has bird's nests all over his yard and inside his house, and he often gives them away as door prizes at his annual Christmas party, which is almost always held in the local cafeteria.
In addition to plants and rocks, Harrison has sprinkled his yard with a few old southwestern artifacts. For example, he has a structure built like a mine shaft, with railroad tracks (narrow gauge) and an ore cart. This is a short windmill that stands in his yard. Over the years, it has become weathered, and now has this interesting pattern of color.
The Generius Skinflint - Reminiscing about good times
Harrison used to go around acting like he was really stingy. It was all in good fun. While he was frugal, he was actually a very generous man.
Twice a year, he would treat his entire rockhounding class to dinner at Furr's Cafeteria. He brought things from his personal collection to give away as door prizes.
I took his landscaping class a couple of times. As you have become aware, his view of landscaping was rather unorthodox. I don't remember what he actually taught us. I just remember enjoying the classes immensely. He would always bring cuttings of one of his plants, and hand out one to each student.
The photos above show some of the things he gave me.
The first is a Stapelia or Carrion Flower. The flower looks like a five pointed star made of light colored leather with red raised lines across the points. It stinks. It draws flies, which it then eats.
Another plant he gave me was Euphorbia antisyphilitica. There is a picture in the paragraph entitled "Renaissance Man". Euphorbias are succulents (even though some look like cactus, they're not). They have a milky, alkaline juice, which can be caustic in some species. The epithet "antisyphilitica" means the plant was used medicinally as a treatment for syphilis. Harrison gave me less than a dozen little stalks. I planted these, and they grew, and grew, and grew. After awhile, I think there were literally thousands of tall stalks. The photo shows the tiny flowers of this plant when it is in bloom.
He also gave me five small agave plants. I'll put a picture of those up when I find one.
I talked to Harrison the other day. He is doing well. He had just gotten back from eating at a local restaurant. He takes care of the plants in her restaurant, and she feeds him. Since it has been fairly hot, he stays inside the house during the day and works on his garden in the morning and late afternoon. Apparently he has started vegging during the hot time of the day. He said he hasn't composed any waltzes in awhile, and I suggested maybe that's what he should do. He told me he had taken a vacation in Alaska! He will be starting up his rockhounding "classes" in the fall (very soon), and he plans to go to the Chiracahuas then, and I want to go with them as a guest. I'll go visit him when it cools off a little, and take pictures. I can't wait to see his Alaska pictures!
The Chiracahua Mountains are close to the border with New Mexico. In fact, to go to Portal, you have to go into New Mexico. On that side, there are places that had some beautiful quartz, but it's probably all gone now. On the west face of the Chiracahuas are very tall piles of rocks, very interesting, totally natural, and you can get away with standing near them, because they are quite stable.
Harrison doesn't have access to the internet, so I took my netbook when I went to see him, and showed him this Lens. He was deeply appreciative. It was the first time he had seen it.
A bunch of us got together with Harrison the other day. We did a lot of reminiscing. I learned that he has composed 375 works for piano, mostly waltzes. We were talking about making sure that his legacy of music is preserved. I met his pastor, and I like him. Harrison goes to a church I used to attend many years ago.
We talked about Ruiboos tea. Harrison introduced me to it. If you have never tried any, you should! It has a very nice flavor. These days, I can find it in the Whole Foods market. Ruiboos is a plant of South Africa.
I brought some pictures of his rocks and plants, as well as the picture at the top of this article. One couple there was the one that runs the restaurant where he has breakfast, and they said the picture was used on the back of his latest biography. Hopefully, I will be getting a copy. They have squeaky toys in their pockets like the ones Harrison likes to use. I'll have to get one of those! I also met a woman who has been his secretary for his rockhunting trips.
We had some prayer together. It was a refreshing time.
A Life to Celebrate
Sadly, Harrison is no longer with us. He left on August 31, 2010, at the age of 87. He is already sorely missed. But I know he is in heaven. I welcome people to submit their reminiscences about times that they enjoyed with him. I will also add some of my own from time to time.
Here are some links to some good articles about him in the Star:
If there is any way some people can put together a fund so his home can be maintained as it is, for posterity, please let me know.
The photo is of a couple of Harrison's smaller mountains.
Update on Harrison's life and estate - a travesty
A sense of outrage and grief
I have been dreading writing this, but it needs to be said.
What happened at the end of Harrison's life, and afterwards, is a travesty.
To begin with, I observed some things in his last days that I think strongly suggest that he wasn't treated right in the end. I won't present any conclusions. I leave that to you.
I saw Harrison in the hospital a couple of weeks before he passed on. He was alert, talking, and fully in possession of that remarkable mind he was noted for. We had a wonderful conversation. A couple of weeks later, I talked to one of his friends. He had been sent to the hospice. I KNOW he wasn't ready to go there; he wanted to go home. The friend had seen him, and he had been alert and talkative. That was in the morning. By the time I visited him in the afternoon, he was unresponsive. Completely. I don't know what they did to him, but I am NOT happy about it. Two days later, he was gone.
It didn't end there. Harrison willed his home and his collections to the Tucson Botanical Gardens. He had an amazing collection of rare books on botany. Harrison left instructions that his home was to be turned into a museum. Didn't happen. Some of his friends tried to get it designated as a historical landmark. That didn't happen, either. I got reports that someone had broken in and stolen his indoor rock collection, and later I got another report that someone had broken in and stolen his books. I don't know if those are true or false. I do know that his wishes that his home be turned into a museum were ignored. Instead, his mountains were dismantled, and much of his landscaping was taken out. Magnificent plants were allowed to die. I drove by his home after awhile, and saw that they were dismantling his mountains. I never had the heart to go back. I don't know what happened to his musical compositions. I hoped they would be published, but I don't have any way of finding out, or making sure it happens.
I wish I didn't have to bring such bad news. It just shows that nothing in this life is certain, and if we don't think about our eternal destiny, we will lose everything. Thankfully, Harrison loved Jesus, so he's Home, and he's happy, in spite of all the trash they did to him and his estate in the end. I look forward to joining him in heaven someday.
Other Remembrances of Harrison
- In Memoriam: Harrison G. Yocum and His Legacy
Pictures and documents.
- Harrison Yocum: Founder of the Tucson Botanical Gardens
A variety of items, lots of content.
For Further Reading, Available at Amazon
Books on Cactus and Succulents
Harrison was a member of the Cactus and Succulent Society. He was regarded as an expert. Some of these books were written by members, or published by the Society, others not.
Complete Book of Cacti & Succulents
by Terry Hewitt
Cacti and Succulents : The American Horticultural Society Illustrated Encyclopedia of Gardening
by The American Horticultural Society
Cacti and Succulents: An Illustrated Guide to the Plants and their Cultivation
by Graham Charles
Harrison was delighted that I put a Lens on Squidoo about him. He loves it when people put things on the internet about him. I took this article with all the comments to him for him to see, and the nurse made a copy from the internet for him. It was wonderful that he got such delight in this little article. Even though he is no longer with us, I still welcome your comments. You can share with the other people who knew him.