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Harrison Yocum

Updated on August 20, 2014

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)

Renaissance Man

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.

Harrison's Garden

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.

Night-blooming Cereus

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.

Antiques

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

Stapelia - Carrion Flower
Stapelia - Carrion Flower

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.

Conversation

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.

Reminiscing

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.

The photo is of a couple of Harrison's smaller mountains.
The photo is of a couple of Harrison's smaller mountains.

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:

Life stories: His passion for plants, rocks was solid

Group unsure how to handle founder's unique property

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.

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.

Harrison's Guestbook

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    • topclimb lm profile image

      topclimb lm 3 years ago

      What a life and story! What an incredible life well lived. Thanks!

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      MarcellaCarlton 3 years ago

      What a wonderful lens with a very sad ending. But as you said he's with Jesus now and happy. It is too bad that his wishes weren't appreciated. Can you ever imagine the gift he was giving to everyone in the community?

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      @Pat Goltz: I am sick. I knew Harrison had died, sa the article in paer& cried. Had many trips & so much fun. I know I will see him in heven. The ending & his belongs just floors me. I have tried twice to get a not through. I remember my truck had a note on it I got a"ticket" becasuse it got lonely&playing ring around rosey at White Mountains. He was like no other& his property&home well what can be said.My daughter& I went. My husband once &videod us all. He also had a young woman from group ask him questions while Pete did the video. We never got it edited, my son-in-law never had time. I just got throught looking at thins I had left handbook, certifivice & stuff I saved. One time at a meal I thought, good I can finally we called first with A for last name, that sinker made me last.Yes, he made us all feel special,he seem to know who needed what. We were the 2 girls in little red truck. He & outdoors made by God took away all stress. As usual lots of money problems. We sold homemade license plates. But it was all good with Harrision. I went by & got things outside the yard. I could't see if anything had been done. Yes, I know the Bible & nothing can be taken. His place deserved to be listed. He Gave So Much. Lesser people leave things & are downright selfish. Yes, I know life is not fair. I can't understand his end or Can I? Well, I just found this site. Love you Harrison. I am sick I did not see you. I took picturers at your house & just sat their. I guess now, it would serve no purpose to go by. I , times, can be a dark person, but than again, it does us good to face the real facts of life. I go see a doctor where he rest & I feel comfort. It's harder because of what they did. But you had many wonderful years & touched so many. God Bless know with you by Casey

    • Pat Goltz profile image
      Author

      Pat Goltz 5 years ago

      To Athene: I did update the lens to tell what happened. Regrettably, going by his home won't do any good. They have dismantled everything, and they put his home up for sale. I haven't had the heart to go by there lately and see what has been happening. I keep in touch with one of his closest friends, so I will find out eventually. All of his belongings that he willed to the Gardens have been sold, as far as I know.

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      I am not sure if anyone checks this site anymore, I just ran across it as I was trying to find out if Harrison's home is open to visitors. I met Mr. Yocum in 2001 when my family traveled to Tucson to visit with family living here. We met in Snowflake and attended a rockhounding trip to find petrified wood and picture sandstone near that area. What a great trip! Harrison took us to a large ranch area to pick up petrified wood. My kids and I were grabbing beautiful pieces as were about 15 other carloads of people along for the trip. I had just unloaded an armful of rocks in the back of my van when a Sheriff pulled up to inform us all that we were illegally trespassing on a rancher's property! I quietly closed the back of my van as I heard down the line that we had to leave all the rocks we found. I am sure many others did the same because I saw a few of those pieces later on.Harrison didn't act like anything had happened at all and took us on to a rock quarry to collect picture sandstone. I never did hear if anything happened about us being on the rancher's property. Later during our trip, we visited Harrison at his home; what an amazing place! My children still talk about Mr. Yocum and his quirky character. I now live in Tucson, partly because of the stories he told and his knowledge about the plants and rocks of this area! I would love to take some of my friends to see his home and yard if it is open. Is this possible?

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      FYI: The Tucson Botanical Gardens will be having a sale of a wide variety of Harrison Yocum's books, plants, knicknacks and mineral specimens on February 6, 2012 from 9 am to 8 pm and on February 7 from 9 am to 4 pm. The sale is open to the public. Proceeds will help fund a Harrison Yocum exhibit that will honor Mr. Yocum's amazing contributions to the Gardens and to his many friends (he never met anyone who wasn't!) everywhere. This won't be repeated and it's a lovely opportunity to remember Harrison.Pass it on! For more info contact Darlene Buhrow at 520-326-9686 ext. 35 or at communications@tucsonbotanical.org.

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      anonymous 7 years ago

      Uncle Harrison passed away 8/31/2010 and was laid to rest last week on 9/12 in Tucson. He was honored by friends and family who spoke spontaneously from the heart on how Harrison has touched their lives.....and then with an Ice Cream Social at the Tucson Botanical Gardens he loved so much. He will be missed, he was a true gem.

    • Pat Goltz profile image
      Author

      Pat Goltz 7 years ago

      Just so you know, I am current on events and will be updating the lens soon. I appreciate your comments with personal information, though I won't display them publicly. If you have memories you want to share, please do!

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      anonymous 7 years ago

      Harrison passed away on August 31st & there was a memorial service for him today, Friday September 10th. I don't have much in the way of details, but you can contact Carol @ 520-304-3258.

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      anonymous 7 years ago

      With deep regrets I report Harrison passed away this week Many of us enjoyed his rock hounding jaunts and wonderful personality and knowdlege. May he rest in peace.

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      WilliamPenrose 7 years ago

      Harrison Yocum died this morning, August 31, as a complication of heart surgery a couple of months ago. He will be buried on Friday, Sept. 3. Watch the Star for details.

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      anonymous 7 years ago

      Harrison is at Tucson Medical Center Hospice. He is expected to live only a few more days, if that.

      He is off all medication and they are trying to keep him comfortable and pain free. He is on oxygen

      but other than that, just comfort care.

      I went to visit with him today but he was not awake and had labored breathing along with some

      tossing and turning.

      If you would like to stop in for a short visit, the address / directions as follows:

      Peppi's House Hospice

      Outer Campus of Tucson Medical Center (TMC)

      2715 Wyatt

      ROOM 1003

      which is between Craycroft and Swan just south off of Glenn onto Wyatt

      It is a new building with free parking.

      May God bless Harrison and may his passing be peaceful.

      Donna

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      anonymous 7 years ago

      Thank you, Connie! I haven't talked to him in awhile, and I will try to call him soon. If you have ever seen his yard, you know how much he is in touch with nature, and how much he loves these things.

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      anonymous 7 years ago

      I had a pleasure of meeting Mr. Harrison when I chose him as my "Elder of Interest" for my Gerontology class in NAU. He is full of smile and stories about his life, music he wrote, plants, rocks, and Indian jewelries he was wearing during the interview. He states, "Aging is inevitable but make the most of it and plan ahead. Appreciate the times you spend on earth. I'm a naturalist. Keep in touch with nature because it tends to prolong life. Its beauty has natural wonders by itself through self discovery. I have no time to be lonely. Enjoy life and your friends! I have much to do but helpless because I'm old...at least, it's been good so far ". He asked me to give him a copy of my paper for safe keeping and I promised I will. He was a very good patient in our rehab facility and I wish him well.

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      anonymous 7 years ago

      Met Harrison a few years ago in one of his rock hounding classes. What an experience and what a character. We got to see his home for his "birthday party" and he delighted us with his music. He especially clicked with my husband who was born in Vienna ... Harrison got to practice his German. Give Harrison our best...Carol & Heinz Topol

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      Pat Goltz 7 years ago

      Diane, Thank you for sharing! I knew his parents, though not well. I never heard about the roadrunner. Harrison has played for me most of the time I have visited him. His waltzes are absolutely amazing! I haven't talked to him for several months, but last I talked to him, he was doing well, still working in his own garden. If you live in Tucson, you should be able to drop by, and I'm sure he'd love to see you!

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      anonymous 7 years ago

      I first meet Harriso in the early 1970s. His parents were still alive and he had a rescued roadrunner. The roadrunner couldn't run so he created a den in this garden for the bird. While my former husband's aunt and uncle played cards with his parents, I would sit and listen to him play the piano. On my second visit we did the same except he played a piece he had written the day before. I really enjoyed those hours listening to him play the piano. He even gave me a tour of the Tucson Botanical Gardens before I had to leave. I have lost contact with him over the years and I am glad to see him still active as ever.

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      Pat Goltz 7 years ago

      [in reply to Jean Barkley, Tuscon, friend of Harrison]

      Jean, thanks for commenting. I know he doesn't teach botany, but he does other things with it. It's great he's still out gallivanting around. I hope to go see him soon. He certainly is an icon here! I also hope I can sign up for his rockhounding trips again before too long. Gotta get up earlier in the day to do it, though.

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      anonymous 7 years ago

      I love Harrison! FYI he doesn't currently teach botany but has been teaching rockhounding for many years . My husband and I took his class about 5 years ago and still go on selected collecting trips. By the way, he still collects minerals. We just returned with him and his current class from a trip to the Holbrook, AZ area collecting beautiful rainbow petrified wood and dark gray wood with crystals. He is still like a little kid in a candy store when he finds a nice rock! He is an icon in Tucson!