When he's suiting up for a varsity football game, most of Cascade High School senior Daniel Killam's friends and pigskin spectators don't picture the more than 6-foot-tall "jock" carefully nurturing tiny cactus plants.
A master gardener and head of the cactus and succulent garden at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, the 17-year-old acknowledges most of his friends are surprised when they first learn about his chosen hobby.
"Most of my friends know me pretty well and know I'm a master gardener, which is kind of amusing to them because, I mean, how many guys my age are head of a garden anywhere," says Daniel.
A nod to his upbringing, the teen's gardening passion began when he was just 4 years old, when he would spend hours following his grandmother, Carol Oneal of Medford, around her large garden.
While Daniel credits his grandmother, former president of Jackson County Master Gardener Association, with giving him a love of the outdoors and gardening, his entire extended family always has been involved in growing plants, fruits and vegetables in one way or another.
At his parents' home, says Daniel, vegetable gardens, planter boxes and, by his own doing, dozens of containers of succulent plants adorn the sprawling yard.
"They plopped me out of the cradle and set me in the garden, so I don't remember ever not spending time in a garden," says Daniel.
"As a very small kid, I remember back when we used to live in Seattle and had a really big garden. I remember distinctly sitting under sunflower plants, just playing in the dirt with my army men and snacking on carrots I'd pull up that we had planted."
When Daniel was in elementary school, says Oneal, her grandson enjoyed something most grade-schoolers get to try — watching a seed sprout and grow — but took the lesson a bit further than most 7-year-olds.
"It was in second or third grade, his teacher at school that spring was doing a section on seeds and so the kids sprouted some lima-bean seeds," she says.
"He brought them home, and I helped him plant them. We talked about seeds, and he was very careful to nurture them and he actually produced a nice, little harvest of beans.
"That fall, even though he had a different teacher, he took some of those beans to his teacher, and she said she had done that for years and never had kids bring her anything back."
By age 13, the young gardener, then home-schooled, tackled a new challenge when he decided to study to become a master gardener, a distinction most often attained by adults.
"When he took the class, I thought people were going to think, 'What is a kid doing in here?' " recalls Oneal. "But he was well-accepted, and I still have several master gardeners ask when they see me, 'How's my Daniel doing?' "
Now in high school, Daniel discovered succulents a few years ago and became hooked on collecting the myriad varieties the way many teen boys collect baseball cards or comic books.
He enjoyed the plants so much that, two years ago, he offered to replace an ailing "craft garden" with a garden for succulents and cacti at the Extension center in Central Point.
Common houseplants, succulents and cacti winter well and are able to withstand winter in the Rogue Valley, Daniel points out. The plants are otherwise low-maintenance and tidy in landscape beds and containers. In his garden on the Extension grounds, he maintains several dozen of the more than 75 varieties he has purchased and learned to grow.
"I just found these plants so fascinating because there was such a great variety, and they were so easy to care for," he says. "I want to find every possible variety I can."
Bob Reynolds, master gardener coordinator for the Extension, marvels at Daniel's interest and work ethic with the garden.
"He's not your typical teenager in a lot of ways, but in a lot of ways, I guess he is," says Reynolds. "Most years, we have one or two teens take the master gardener class, but he did it at 13.
"There's been only one kid since then that took it at that young an age. He's just a really neat kid. Ever since he took the class, he's kept up right along with everyone else in the classroom, the market and in our gardens."
With high-school graduation on the horizon, Daniel plans to study horticulture at Oregon State University.
"I just have always felt like that was my calling," he says. "I've looked at other things, and I always come back to this. I do this because I absolutely love it, and I want to learn as much as I can."