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Cactus Story

"Cactus Conservatory a South Texas Jewel"

© 2003 by Daniel García Ordaz All rights reserved.

(Originally Published in the Valley Town Crier, Circulation 200,000
February 2002

Just off the beaten path in Alamo, Texas, lies a five-acre tract of land known as Sunderland’s Cactus Gardens, Inc., teeming with cacti and succulents reminiscent of thorny desert landscapes. But the couple that own and operate the place is no prickly pair. After 46 years in business Harry and Viola Sunderland have mastered the art of offering quality customer service and premier products, a hallmark of their gift shop and gardens.

Sunderland’s has been listed in the Texas tourism guide, under Alamo, as a must-see attraction since the 1970s. The couple provides access to the gardens, adjacent to their home, via a walking trail. A substantial “cactus conservatory” is displayed in their modest gift shop, all at no charge to the public.

A donations jar was finally placed near the entrance to the garden after years of visitors insisting the couple ought to charge for their cactus trail.

“I say, hey, put the money in the jar if you want,” Harry said, laughing. “I don’t intend to charge people to look at my place.” The couple gives all the donated funds away. “It’s not for us at all,” Harry explained. “We give it to the needy.”

While entrance is free and children are welcome, Harry strictly requires that all visitors read the garden rules before entering the trail.

The gardens feature native and exotic cacti and succulents. Among the thousands of plant varieties, one is the largest nursery-grown cactus in Texas, a 25-foot specimen of Packycereus pringilii, found in the wild only in Baja California. Another collector’s item in the conservatory is a smaller blooming cactus, Echinosera, which grows exclusively on one little mountain in México.

Harry, a native of Mission, and his wife Viola, of the renowned Guerra ranching family, have been in the cactus business since 1956. After serving stateside in the Army during the Korean War, Harry and Viola bought Paul Virtle’s Cactus Gardens—stated in 1909—on then-Morningside and Wisconsin Roads.

“When I bought that garden, I bought that with the promise from the owner that he was going to stay with me a year and teach me,” Harry explained. “But he died four weeks later.”

Before he died, Paul said, “Harry, no matter what happens in the future, don’t you sell those books! You keep them together. So I thought Paul was trying to tell me something. So I said, 'I’ll go to the books.'”

Building on his stint as a salesman for Virtle, Harry pored over the professional and amateur books in his inherited library for six years.

“I’d get in the office at night and study from one hour to six hours,” Harry recalled. “That’s how I learned. After that I could key out plants by their description.”

That explains the ease with which Harry deals with customers looking for plants given only minimal information. Like a master mechanic, he identified a plant one lady was looking for by asking her to describe it.

Later, a man walked in and asked Harry why the cactus he bought on a roadside was not growing past a certain height. “It looks just like that one, but mine’s little,” he said.

Harry told the man he was lucky his plant grew to two feet. “This is what you got,” Harry said, pointing at a short cactus in his shop. “I don’t do that here,” he said, proudly. “I tell you how it is, so you can make a choice. But a lot of people will sell something just to get the profit.”

After selling the Virtle place, the Sunderlands moved to McAllen, Texas, importing and exporting cactus and plants. They bought the present locale in 1965 and set up shop after replacing citrus groves with cactus. After their youngest child started school, Viola asked Harry for a shop to deal in retail sales.

A few years ago, the couple contracted a young potter, but “I didn’t think much of his first pots,” Harry joked. “I started telling him what I like. Pretty soon he started making really nice stuff. He’s really the best pot maker I’ve seen.”

The gift shop has dish gardens, contained in the pottery, cactus in 3”, 4” and 6” pots, and assorted stoneware items. The shop is a museum of sorts, but serves mainly as the retail center of the gardens. Many small cacti and succulents sell for $1.49 apiece. Harry includes written instructions with each plant purchase.

“He can give a person a plant, but if that person cannot care for it, it’s like condemning the plant to death, and it’s not about that,” said Gaudensio Moya, a doctor from Reynosa, in Spanish.

Because many of these plants are low-maintenance and attractive, they are popular gifts to hospitalized persons. People buy the plants as gifts or to build their own cactus gardens.

At its height, long before the World Wide Web, Sunderland’s shipped some of its 2,000 plant species globally to such places as South Africa, the Netherlands, Germany, and Japan. According to Harry, “It was not unusual to ship a ton or two at a time.”

The company had a small fleet of trucks to ship plants out of the Houston airport or to deliver anywhere from Florida to northern California.

“We had people tell us that our plants were the best. A lot of times I was surprised about how people found us. They would lay down 5 or 10 thousand dollars at a time,” Harry explained. “We shipped good stuff and took pride in it and word got around.”

An important factor of Sunderland’s success is the Valley’s heat and the full light on the plants. But the secret is “Sunderland’s Cactus Soil,” available in the gift shop.

“I worked for years building my own soil,” Harry explained. “I try to stay with a sterile soil because I don’t want weeds coming up. I don’t use any soil from the fields at all.” The special soil makes cactus and succulents look, grow, and bloom better.

There are two large 40-year-old cacti from México in the gardens. Sunderland’s also boasts some Saguaro cactus, normally found in New Mexico. However these plants are small because they did not survive the freeze of 1983.

After the freeze, the couple decided to slow down, selling its fleet of trucks and handling all the work themselves. They lost $2 million in inventory then. “It put us in a real bind because we didn’t have plants to sell,” Harry recalled. “But they grew back.”

By the time their stock had grown again, the freeze of 1989 hit the Rio Grande Valley. This time they lost a million dollars. But they survived and kept the gardens open. Now the couple is ready to retire and is hoping to sell.

“I imagine if anybody would buy my stock and go into business, I’d probably have to stay with him for a while and teach him,” Harry predicted. “I don’t want some old person like me to take over. You need a person that’s eager.”

Harry said he would keep his gardens and plants, after selling the plants in the hothouses. Viola would keep a smaller hothouse as well.

“It’s too bad he’s hoping to sell,” Moya said. “Here is a place which has contributed much to the conservation and the proliferation of these plants.”

Over the years, Harry has collected thousands of seeds, which have remained viable for up to 16 years when refrigerated. Many rare species are propagated from seeds.

“We’ve still lots of species in the gardens and in the hot houses that we don’t have [inside the shop],” Harry said. “We can’t have them in the pots here ‘cause they need lots of light.”

Many of the plants are hybrids, which causes unique signatures on the cactus and succulents. Harry grafted some when they were as tiny as a match head, though it had not been done. He took seedlings in the hothouse and learned how to cross-pollinate.

Sometimes, nature gets involved as well. A most unusual aloe plants sits on its long stalk in the garden displaying a colorful orange bloom. “I’ve talked to a lot of people about this plant,” Harry said. “The problem with aloes is that even bees can cross-pollinate them. This is one of those different ones.”

“If something turns out differently, we put it in the conservatory,” Harry said, beaming. “When we sow seeds, if it turns out unusual we set it aside and we watch it.”

Moya, a frequent visitor to the shop, said, “I do not look for whether it’s pretty or ugly, but whether it’s interesting. Of course some are more aesthetically pleasing than others, but they are all beautiful and unique.”

Several scholars have also visited the gardens, including some from universities in Missouri and Iowa, to study Sunderland’s thorny neighbors.

“There’s some people that really know their plants,” Harry said of his customer base. “We have a lot of good people that come in here.”

Sunderland’s is now open only four days a week. In the summertime, the Sunderlands close shop because business slows. However, buyers often phone and ask Harry to open the doors for them. Harry also works on landscaping jobs during the summer.

The Sunderlands may be reached at (956) 781-0207. Please phone before your visit. The Gardens are located 0.7 miles north of Expressway 83 in Alamo at the corner of FM 907 and FM 495.

Checks and cash are welcome, but credit cards are not accepted. Se habla español.

Blooming season is almost in full gear and it’s the perfect time to visit this jewel of South Texas. Don’t forget your camera!

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