Hershell Womble sharing his love of plants with students at Groveland Elementary during a prior school year. (courtesy picture)

Feature Story and Photos by Linda Charlton

At 89 years old, Hershell Womble of Groveland is still in love with plants and still in love with his wife, Jackie. Hershell’s wife of 67 years passed away two years ago, but she’s still with him. Their life together was filled with plants and plant-loving people (plus their two children). And in particular, they shared a passion for connecting young people with the amazing world of plants. For Hershell that means that when he is interacting with teachers and students in local elementary schools, he is continuing the life he shared with his wife and honoring her memory.

Lisa Cortese of Groveland figured that out at the last Groveland-Mascotte Garden Club plant sale, based on a chance remark from Womble. “He continues with the garden club in honor of his wife, and that just makes my heart smile,” she says.

Hershell Womble with a painting by wife Jackie. Not surprisingly, flowers were a favorite subject of hers.

Mascotte Charter Elementary science teacher Rachel Stansell and Groveland Elementary librarian Mary Shirley both tell the same story: the two topics that Womble talks about are plants and his wife.

The basic division of labor between the Wombles was that he grew the plants and photographed them, she painted them and arranged flowers. They both studied plants and took an active role in educating others.

In 1957 the Wombles moved to Florida, where Hershell had secured employment as an electrical engineer. That’s when they discovered the world of ornamental plants. In fact, Hershell says that if he had known about ornamental plants early in life, he would “definitely” have gone into that field.

The Wombles came from a farming community in southeast Alabama where Hershell, as a child, was responsible for the family vegetable garden. His parents were sharecroppers until he was 8 and they didn’t get electricity until after WWII, when Hershell was 15. As poor as they were, when Hershell grew vegetables he was literally helping to feed his family. His career in electrical engineering came, in part, because the young man really wanted to get out of the cotton patch.

“I knew early in life that what I do in my life was up to me,” he says. “My parents had nothing. I took every job I could. I had no time for girls. I had two dates in school, and one was with the girl I married. We met at a birthday party. I asked her to the prom. I decided she was the girl of my dreams.”

Then at a different birthday party, he conspired with the host to fix a game of Truth or Consequences against the young Jackie. The “fix” was that any answer Jackie gave to a question would be wrong, and as a “consequence”,” she had to propose marriage to the young Hershell. The plan worked.

“I’ve had a good life,” Hershell says. “My honey and I, we got to do things I never thought we’d get to do.”

As Mr. Womble explains, the bulbs on this plant are on the leaves.

Hershell Womble is a pillar of the Groveland-Mascotte Garden Club. He recalls that when he and his wife joined the group, years ago, it was mainly a social club. So when he became president (a position he held for several years) he decided that needed to change — that gardening and educating the young about gardening was the way to go.

“They went with me,” Womble remembers.

The garden that Womble and the Garden Club installed at Groveland Elementary.

At the most recent meeting of the Groveland-Mascotte Garden Club, Womble gave the group a report on the gardening program at Mascotte Charter Elementary, which now sports a greenhouse, several additional raised planting beds, and extended irrigation lines to service them all. The Club has taken a particular interest in the school program, donating $500 from their spring plant sale.

“I recommend everybody get involved with the kids, the little ones,” he told club members. “They’re like a sponge. I’ve found if they grow veggies, they will eat them. I was so overwhelmed. Don’t let anybody tell you our teachers are bad.”

Rachel Stansell is the Mascotte teacher in charge of gardening there.

“He came at the end of the year,” Stansell recalls. “He was super excited and impressed with how developed the program was in a short period of time. He asked if they (Garden Club) could do a donation. He has also offered seeds and plants from his home in Groveland (he is downsizing). He just has a real passion for plants, and he really wants to instill it in kids. We’re raising plants and we’re going to donate them to the Garden Club so they can re-sell them and donate to another organization in need. He’s amazing. I respect him.”

At home, with some of the many plant photos, he has taken.

On a recent teacher workday, Groveland Elementar’s Mary Shirley was busy cataloging Womble’s plant library, which he had just donated to the school.

“Now I will have to start reading them,” Shirley said, “so I can carry on Mr. Womble’s legacy.”

Even without the books, Womble already has a presence on the campus. The little garden in front of the library, planted with native plants, was installed by the Garden Club in the spring of 2018. A sign in the garden dedicates it to Hershell and Jackie Womble and the Groveland Garden Club. Hershell and the rest of the Garden Club members physically installed the garden. Jackie was there in spirit.

The same area, before the Garden Club started their work. [COURTSY PHOTO]
Shirley remembers how the project started: “He was just on campus one day with a little group of people. I know he was upset that someone had planted something in the back and not taken care of it. He asked if he could help us make a garden in the front. I said ‘yes. that was my vision.’ So we created this enchanted garden. A lot of the children don’t have grandpas any more, and they just click with him. You can tell he loves children, and they can tell. What he did ‘just because’ is amazing. If more people were like him, imagine the impact on the world, on the environment. He’s a superhero.”

(Article and many of the photos

Linda Charlton is a freelance writer/musician/photographer based in south Lake County. Her favorite hobby is unraveling mysteries.

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