SLO woman has a passion for prickly plants

Through the years, Mary Peracca has developed a love for all things succulent and has managed to amass quite a collection

Special to The TribuneMay 15, 2013 

Mary Peracca began growing plants as a Cal Poly student during the 1970s.

Then she collected geraniums, fascinated by their many varieties. As a psychology major, however, she wasn’t interested in studying plants seriously. And though Mary enjoyed working with plants — after graduation and marriage, she and her former husband operated several local plant shops — she never considered herself a plant expert.

Mary’s attitude toward plants changed about seven years ago.

Attending her first meeting of the San Luis Obispo Cactus and Succulent Society, she was the lucky winner in a drawing for a free plant. That was the beginning of her auspicious relationship with succulent plants, as well as with the organization. Before long, she was asked to serve as president. She’s currently vice president. As Mary puts it, “I enjoy being a ‘go-to’ person.”

That Mary is an aficionado of succulent plants is obvious at her front door.

Five years ago, she asked Nick Wilkinson, proprietor of Grow Nursery and fellow Cactus and Succulent Society member, to revitalize the low brick planter beds that border her entry walk and extend across the front of the house. Now, eye-catching succulents are interspersed with reeds, assorted geraniums and a Protea at the corner, added for its red and green color.

In the backyard, a sheltered nook on the south side of the house enables pots of frost-tender cacti to survive outdoors. They are arrayed on a small table, a bench and the shelves of two wire racks. Mary plans to display one of the specimens at this year’s Cactus and Succulent show. It is Hoodia, a carrion plant that develops a stinky odor to attract pollinating insects.

Nearby, a corrugated plastic roof along her south side fence shelters another collection that Mary describes as “a mishmash.” Some staghorn ferns have survived here since 1981. Their companions include bromeliads and orchids, as well as assorted new cuttings and starter plants.

Not all of Mary’s succulents are in pots. Some thrive in a square planter bed adjacent to the backyard patio, where an overgrown tree had been removed. The soil there is naturalistically mounded and rocky. Mary covered the remaining exposed roots with mounds of cactus mix to provide root space for new plants, then added rocks as an accent.

Mary’s “old man” cactus collection (Cephalocerieus senilis, named for the long white hairs that disguise its sharp thorns) is displayed on shelves beneath a wooden arbor. The largest specimen, about 3 feet tall, has won prizes at previous Cactus and Succulent shows, and will be shown again this year.

“This guy will ride in the front seat of my car,” Mary says, adding, “I have to remind myself not to instinctively steady him with my bare hand while turning corners.”

To provide more outdoor display space for her growing collection, Mary recently had a carpenter build a sturdy three-tiered display unit that wraps around the L-shaped wall of the house. It is equally attractive from inside the house, viewed from both the living room and from Mary’s bedroom.


For growing tips and answers to questions, Mary recommends attending the Cactus and Succulent Society Show and Sale at the Ludwick Community Center, 846 Santa Rosa St. in San Luis Obispo, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 25 and 26.

Or, attend a meeting of the Cactus & Succulent Society, held at 2 p.m. on the second Sunday of every month, at the SLO City/County Library.

Experts at the show, sale and meetings are available to answer questions about growing or selecting plants. Admission is free. Plants and handcrafted containers will be sold during the show. For more information:

Reach Sharon Crawford at

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