Full Flower

Photography by Gene Pollux By Nancy Wollin Cook May 31, 2010

Tropiflora owner Dennis Cathcart, 62, refers to his exotic plant business as “a hobby gone bad.” But after touring seven of the Manatee County nursery’s 20 acres on Tallevast Road east of U.S. 301, one can’t help but conclude that Tropiflora is, in fact, a hobby gone very, very good. Cathcart’s Manatee County business sells plants to zoos, famous tropical gardens, plant nurseries and collectors all over the world.

The seven developed acres on Cathcart’s property are populated by thousands of varieties of plants grown in 20 greenhouses and two enormous shade houses; one spans an acre, and the other covers two acres. Each is filled with all kinds of curious plants.

There are orchids like the pale lavender Venezuelan Cattleya gaskelliana that smells like jasmine and the Macodes petola, described in Tropiflora’s catalogue as “a gorgeous little jewel orchid with velvety leaves of light and dark green with silvery veining that actually sparkles.”

One tree twists like a contortionist and another—the Senecio pendulu from the Arabian Peninsula, known as the inchworm plant—resembles the snakelike hair of Medusa.

There are succulents, including a mind-boggling array of desert cacti, and ferns. And there are scores of bromeliads. The latter are Cathcart’s passion, and he is world-renowned for his unique collection.

Cathcart wasn’t always a plant man. He started out some 40 years ago as a snake enthusiast traveling the Caribbean and Latin America with fellow herpetologists. It was during one of these trips that the self-styled “quirky snake geek” encountered his first epiphytic bromeliads. “I marveled at the fact that they grew in trees, but they weren’t parasite plants,” he says. “I started a small collection and after the first year had a dozen varieties.”

A native of Davie, Fla., Cathcart moved to Manatee County in 1967 and opened Tropiflora in 1976. Since then, he has collected or acquired more than 5,000 varieties of tropical plants. Sixty-five percent cannot be bought anywhere else. “If we should lose any of these varieties, we wouldn’t be able to replace them,” he says. “They were collected in jungles all over the world. Nobody else is producing them now, and they take years to develop and cultivate.”

When Cathcart says “all over the world,” he isn’t exaggerating. Often accompanied by his wife, Linda, he has made more than 100 collecting trips to 27 countries, including almost every Caribbean and Latin American country, as well as Australia, South Africa, Thailand, Singapore, Borneo, Java and Madagascar. Three of his discoveries are named after him and carry the epithet cathcartii: Aechmea and Neoregelia cathcartii were discovered in Venezuela in 1975, and Vriesea cathcartii was discovered in Ecuador in 1990. During a trip to Costa Rica, Cathcart even discovered a new lizard, the Amievia Festiva.

Tropiflora employs 15 people, some of whom have been with the business for decades. The company supplies tropical plants to zoos and botanical gardens and counts Disney World, Busch Gardens and Marie Selby Botanical Gardens among its customers. Fans also include collectors and hobbyists, as well as resellers such as smaller nurseries and landscapers. Approximately 60 percent of its business is mail order and 10 percent of its customers are overseas.

Cathcart’s most ambitious project is nearing completion. In 2005, Tropiflora was approached by old friend and former Selby director Dr. Kiat W. Tan, who had returned to his native Singapore and was working for the government, to participate in Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay development—a mammoth overhaul of that country’s waterfront that would include a 250-acre botanical garden. “Gardens by the Bay is a great earth-moving project,” Cathcart says. “It encompasses great changes to that country, including the damming of a river, and will actually produce more energy than it consumes. It will make Singapore a city in a garden.”

After lengthy negotiations, Cathcart signed a $2-million contract to supply the project with its anchor collection of 220,000 bromeliads and succulents. Tropiflora began shipping plants to Singapore in 2008. The first phase of the Gardens by the Bay project, which will reach completion in 2011, will include the creation of SuperTrees, treelike structures that measure between nine and 16 stories high. The SuperTrees will be populated by tropical flowering climbers, epiphytes and ferns, many provided by Tropiflora. 

(Tan and Cathcart are not the only Sarasota connections to the Singapore gardens. Harry Luther, another longtime Cathcart friend and world-renowned bromeliad expert, resigned in February after 32 years as director of the bromeliad center at Selby Gardens to join the Gardens by the Bay team.) 

Tropiflora’s negotiations with Singapore began before the economy began to tank, and Cathcart originally thought the deal would present an opportunity to retire. But, like so many businesses, Tropiflora has felt the sting of the real estate collapse. “During the housing boom we definitely saw an upsurge in demand for landscape items. To meet the then-current and what we saw as the future demand, we built up stock and converted space to produce materials of interest to landscapers,” he explains. When the housing market plummeted, Tropiflora’s landscaping clients all but disappeared. “Suddenly and abruptly, that business dried up,” he says.

A weak economy isn’t his only challenge. The nursery did not escape the fury of the historic 2004 hurricane season. “Jeanne hit us hard,” Cathcart says, referring to the fourth hurricane to hit Florida late that summer. “That hurricane caused somewhere in the neighborhood of $350,000 in damage to the nursery. We had to borrow payroll for six months after the destruction caused by that hurricane.”

But Cathcart takes hurricanes and economic downturns in stride. “We’re entrepreneurial. We’re not the fast buck Freddy kind. We’re into this for the long haul,” Cathcart says.

Tropiflora’s sales have been holding steady at $1 million a year for the past five years, Cathcart says, and though he and Linda have put retirement plans on hold, they are grooming their children, Robin Lockhart, 36, and Scott Lockhart, 33, to eventually take over the business.

In the meantime, the Cathcarts have revved up their outreach to collectors and hobbyists, giving more than 30 talks a year to bromeliad societies in the U.S. and overseas. Cathcart spoke at the Bromeliad World Conference in Australia this past April.

Sarasota landscape architect Michael Gilkey says Tropiflora represents the cream of the crop when it comes to its knowledgeable staff and the quality and diversity of its offerings. “They push the boundaries of my designs. When you walk into their showroom, the variety is ungodly,” he says. “I have to call ahead and let them know specifically what I am looking for or I’ll spend all day there. There is so much to see, it’s like you lose time when you are there.” ■

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