Collectors are fascinating people. They possess a passion for their ephemera, dogged determination in their hunt, and extensive knowledge of their collection. Some collectibles are beloved for their esoterica'bottle caps or board games'others are universally valued, and thus highly prized: coins, wine and cycads. Cycads?
Yes, these ancient plants that shared the earth with dinosaurs, although still found in both hemispheres, have slipped into the category of rare plants. Although they once represented a dominant and very successful plant line, many of today's cycad populations are threatened with extinction, the result of zealous collectors and diminishing habitats.
Maurice Levin, whose small backyard collection of cycads ranked as hobby, decided six years ago to turn it into a business, Jurassic Garden, with the intention of making cycads a part of the landscape. Not only does he collect species from all over the world, but he has also dedicated the major part of his business to propagating scores and scores of seeds in an effort to keep them from dying out and to bring the plants into the affordable range.
'My goal is to protect these species by putting them into local garden centers, to make them less rare,' Levin says. 'We will have achieved a measure of success if in the coming years there will be ample seed-grown plants of all sizes available at reasonable prices, and wild populations will become an intriguing thing to visit, examine and study, not a place to harvest.'
Indeed, cycads' rare and fascinating history make them highly prized and often quite costly specimens. Yes, they have also been stolen, dug right out of the ground.
At first glace, cycads resemble palms, their crown of leaves splaying out from a slow-growing columnar trunk, which can be from three to 50 feet tall. But while they may look like palms, they are closer to pines, equipped with cones--pollen cones on the male plant, seed cones on the females. They also resemble ferns. In fact, the genus cycas uncoils its large leaves like a fern. In the wild, wind assists the male in carrying the pollen grains directly to the female cones, while in the Jurassic Garden, pollination is accomplished by hand.
In the female cones of most species, two large seeds are produced at the base of each cone. Their unusual size has confounded botanists in explaining the wide distribution of the plants in tropical and subtropical regions of the world. How could cycads have such a worldwide distribution when their seeds are too large, heavy and dense to be carried great distances by birds, wind or ocean currents?
The answer is found by going back about 200 million years, when the continents were united into an enormous supercontinent. Our knowledge of plate tectonics shows that large plates of the earth's crust are slowly moving, resulting in today's isolated continents and widespread distribution of cycads.
The cycads' remarkable reproduction resulted in 11 main categories, which are all different from each other and tend to be native to a specific part of the world. One species comes from the Americas, another from Africa, and yet another from Australia. Some are large, others quite small. Some have vibrant green leaves while others are as blue as the sky. Some have prickly leaves, others are 'user friendly' in that the leaflets are unarmed. with no spines.
Levin's story of how he got involved with these ancient plants is a familiar one: an executive, in his case an investment banker and real estate investor, has an epiphany.
'One afternoon, I was sitting in my office in Westwood looking out the window and thought 'I want to do something good for my soul,'' Levin recalls.
His change of course was accelerated by what he calls 'three bad things.' One of his friends suffered a financial disaster, another guy landed in jail, and Levin, himself, lost a real estate transaction that he confesses didn't put him under, but helped to focus his attention on more important matters.
In 2002, he bought about 4,500 cycads from a nurseryman in Santa Barbara who wanted to leave the retail business. Later he participated in buying several thousand plants from the Hewson collection'a large private botanical garden in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
He took courses at UCLA Extension and 'met a couple of people who have inspired me to do things more naturally.'
Locating his nursery on two acres of DWP land in North Hollywood has given Levin the room to display hundreds of species, categorized by genus, in light-filtered greenhouses. He also dedicated a large part of the operation to the propagation process, from the seed room to the sunroom'where the plantlets continue their slow, very slow development. A two-leafed plant, for example, is approximately two years old.
While an equal-opportunity guy, Levin does favor the encephalartos genus'which is the most popular group of collectible cycads worldwide. He likes the variety and the interesting leaf shapes.
Levin grew up in Brentwood, attended Kenter Canyon, Paul Revere and graduated from Palisades High School in 1974. He studied at Harvard for both his undergraduate and MBA degrees and worked on Wall Street before returning to Los Angeles in 1989 to work in commercial real estate. His wife Randi was recently appointed by Mayor Villaraigosa as the chief technology advisor, and his children attend local public schools. Adam, 15, is a sophomore at PaliHi, and Jessica, 12 is an eighth grader at Revere.
Because Levin lives at the top of Coldwater Canyon, he thinks it important to be involved in his children's schools and community. He has given periodic presentations to students in Craig Honda's science class at Revere, with an bonus free cycad for each student. And along with other dedicated parents, he supports the PaliHi baseball program, which his son plays on.
Levin is hosting a cycad sale and auction this weekend, April 28 and 29, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and will donate 50 percent of his sale proceeds to the Palisades High baseball program from anyone mentioning Pali baseball or Pacific Palisades. There will be expert help from people who know how to select and grow cycads, as well as periodic presentations on cycad care and cultivation''How to save and nurture the endangered species you've just bought,' he says. Lunch and refreshments will also be served.
The baseball program, which has an $80,000 annual budget, receives only $2,000 from the school,' Levin says. 'So, the coaches and parents need to come up with $78,000 every year to fund the baseball program. This is why I'm doing a sale.'
Contact (818) 655-0230. Jurassic Garden is located at 11225 Canoga Avenue, in Chatsworth.