Indeed, part of the garden’s charm is its mystery; shrouded among the unknowable minds of the greenery that sprouts and hangs and meditates in terracotta pots, the grounds themselves are tucked away off a side street within that purgatorial slant between Sarasota and Bradenton, itself balancing in a liminal state.

It all started with journalist, minister, botanist and native Floridian Walter G. Sparkman and his wife Mary Olive Howes who purchased the .62-acre property in 1938 and subsequently built a small bungalow with the intention of surrounding it with an extended garden. Within the garden, Sparkman decided to experiment with cacti and succulents—not just those native to the Floridian climate, but others from as far away as India and Africa. In 1950, Sparkman founded a formal institution, the Sarasota Succulent Society (SSS) to foster the growing interest in the study, research and education of succulents, recruiting six women to be the first charter members. Since Sparkman’s death in 1968, the society has grown into a nonprofit, volunteer-run organization and the land and house that sits on it has been designated an historic site by the City of Sarasota. 

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Today, the gardens run wild with lush greenery, with corners dedicated to unusual cacti (did you know that nearly all cacti are succulents but not all succulents are cacti?), tall chlorophytum (spider plants), massive ashy-green agave plants and even a few banana trees just beginning to produce the crescent fruit. “We have two white cacti that are very unusual that people will travel to come see,” says SSS President Wolfe Zucker. Tall, spindly euphorbia cacti, juicy aloe aristata, prickly flowering huernia, sea-grape-esque crassulaceae—these and hundreds more succulent and plant species coexist in harmony, creating their own natural order. 

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A greenhouse sits on the south side of the grounds dedicated to potted, hanging and free-flowing succulents—one resembles the blood-orange fan that extends and retracts from the throat of male brown lizards; another hangs from its pot like a weeping willow, its five-foot-long water-filled tendrils longing to make contact with the dirt floor. Outside, a preening agave releases a giant stalk through its belly into the air, the pinnacle making contact with the leaves of the oak tree high above, acting as the plant’s reproductive organ—when the spike flowers, the mother plant dies, leaving the hundreds of blooms to be pollenated and replace her. “Everyone’s first thought is that it is so peaceful here,” says Zucker, “but really it’s chaos—a mad dash, a fight for the sun.”