Innovative ideas from a California gardener

Succulent plants are prized by collectors for their interesting sculptural shapes, unusual leaf formations, low water usage, and ease of care. Although often associated with hot, dry summers and arid landscapes, succulent plants can be used effectively in all seasons - even at Christmastime.

One California collector, Robert Cohen, uses them as distinctive designs to accent more traditional holiday plants like poinsettias. He loves to create "color bowls" with poinsettias and donkey's tail (Sedum morganianum) or string-of-pearls (Senecio rowleyanus). He also clusters plump amaryllis bulbs in large cachepots, then tucks in string-of-pearls for accents.

"I put succulents everywhere because of their architectural qualities and wonderful textures," he says.

Mr. Cohen has spent his lifetime with flowers and plants. His garden is what he terms "a succulent paradise." Overlooking Newport Bay in California, it showcases all sorts of succulent plants. They function as graceful ground covers cascading down mixed borders, stately elongated sentinels that mark walkways and pathways, and visual exclamation points scattered among roses and verdant lawns.

He also uses them indoors - on patios, and in the landscapes at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, of which he is the managing general partner and co-owner. The hotel is a destination for garden lovers, who stroll through the marble-clad lobby and throughout the exuberantly landscaped grounds to admire seasonally changing pots, massive floral displays, and unusual landscapes.

There are few hotels where one will view a giant staghorn fern with trailing string-of-pearls, pots of coleus with croton and donkey's tail, or wander along a pathway lined with queen palm and ficus trees underplanted with mother-in-law's tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata) and double impatiens.

"I push the envelope, and where people say you can't or shouldn't plant, I do," Cohen explains while guiding a visitor through the Four Seasons landscape. "These aren't natural plantings, but they're pleasing to the eye and represent the future of landscape design."

Cohen can't be bothered with cataloging his plants - which he estimates at 1 million strong - and rarely remembers specific varieties. It doesn't matter what name each plant bears - he's enthusiastic about how it looks in its designated space and especially in combination with other plants.

"Gardens should be interesting with a lot of things going on," he says. "Everywhere you look, there should be something interesting to see - a statue, a fountain, an aviary, unusual plants. There's nothing worse than a boring garden."

Cohen breaks the rules that say plants of similar watering needs must be grouped together. Instead, he mixes them all up, but is careful to water and fertilize them individually so all thrive. This makes his personal garden and the Four Seasons landscapes high-maintenance.

Cohen knows and appreciates plants because he's had a lifelong involvement with flowers and gardens. "I was born in a flower shop," he says with a laugh. "My parents, Ezra and Esther, owned Central Avenue Flower Shop, and we lived next door, where I was born."

He grew up helping in the family business, selling gardenias and floral bouquets to nearby restaurants and clubs.

In 1978, Cohen acquired land adjacent to Beverly Hills and spent the next nine years developing and completing the Four Seasons Hotel. Among his other activities, he supervised the design and installation of its lush and elaborate landscape.

Recently, he installed a lavish garden surrounding the new spa center. It features citrus trees in containers, underplanted with alyssum, coleus and, of course, succulents. "Succulents are so easy to grow, it's unreal," he comments. "They always look so beautiful."

Always stunning, his garden is especially appealing during the holidays, when he mixes in vivid red poinsettias - America's most popular potted plant - in his landscape, pots, and table decorations.

"Most people just plop poinsettias on tabletops or stick a plant into a decorative container," he says. "I'd rather do something a little different."

Create a color bowl

Here's how Robert Cohen makes a holiday-season succulent display:

1. Choose a poinsettia plant (preferably red) in a four- or six-inch pot and remove it from the container.

2. Select one or two donkey's tail or echeveria plants and take them out of their pots. Place each in a small plastic bag that covers only the roots and soil.

3. Select a decorative pot, without drainage hole, at least eight inches or more in diameter, to hold all the plants.

4. Place a two-inch layer of pea gravel or bark in the pot, then add a small quantity of potting soil.

5. Place the poinsettia in the decorative pot, add enough soil to hold it in place, then add succulents and cover their plastic bags with more soil.

6. If desired, add a few sprigs of Christmas greenery or tuck in pine cones.

7. Water sparingly as needed.

The succulent plants will remain healthy for up to two months, and when you're finished with the display, you can plant them in pots or in your garden.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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