Jurassic Garden of Cycads

It was in 1989 that Maurice Levin, who was visiting Caneel Bay in the Virgin Islands, noticed the uniqueness of cycads for the first time. He asked his guide about them and learned that these 100-million-year-old living fossils grow well not only in the tropics, but in dry and Mediterranean climates as well.
Levin was taken by the architectural beauty of cycads, as well as their rarity and quickly fell in love. Upon his return to Los Angeles, Levin became a cycad enthusiast, 12 years later opened a cycad nursery and today, on two acres under power lines in North Hollywood, Levin grows nearly 100 types of cycads in shade houses.
He calls his growing operation and nursery Jurassic Garden.
Cycads might remind you of either palms or ferns but, botanically speaking, they are more closely related to pines. This is evident from their huge female reproductive cones, which resemble pine cones on steroids. One type of cone which Levin showed me has the smell of peanut butter when it becomes receptive to pollination, its nutty scent attractive to pollinating beetles in its native land.
Cycads are endangered species, found on every continent but Europe, and there are types available for every nuance of Southern California climate and exposure, from balmy ocean breezes to Santa Ana winds, from full sun to deep shade.
In the Valley, many cycads seem to grow best when protected from hot afternoon sun, but there are types that will grow in the desert. Among Levin’s customers are residents of the Antelope Valley, proving that some cycads tolerate freezing winters just fine.
I was most intrigued by Levin’s blue cycads, especially Encephalartos horridus, so named because of its wicked (horrid) thorns. But thorniness in no way detracts from the deep baby blue color of this unparalleled species.
“There are less than a thousand of these still growing in their South African habitat so planting them is an exercise in preserving a severely endangered species,” Levin said. Indeed, one of Levin’s purposes in growing cycads is to protect them from extinction.
“Cycads are living fossils that have been here since the dinosaurs,” he explained. “They are irreplaceable ancient treasures.”
Although some horticulture books claim that most cycads may be grown in full sun, Levin says that cycads “didn’t read the books” on this subject. “Cycads are native to tropical and subtropical climates where full sun really means moist heat. In Southern California, where the air is dry, most of the green cycads do best in half-day sun.” That being said, certain types, usually the blue ones, such as Encephalartos horridus, as well as the common sago palm (Cycas revoluta), will handle full-sun exposure.
If you want to start a college fund for a newborn baby, procure a quantity of cycad seedlings. Because of their rarity, certain types of cycads can be worth thousands of dollars when they reach 15-plus years of age, so if you had a hundred of them, this would pay for a substantial portion of an entering freshman’s four years of college, even where inflation, 18 years from now, is taken into account.
The cycad caudex (or trunk) grows between one-eighth inch and two inches per year. This slow rate of growth is what makes cycads so valuable.
As for taking care of cycads, they are extremely drought-tolerant, so treat them as you would any cactus plant.
“You should not have to water a cycad more than once a week, even in the summer,” Levin said, “and they can actually do quite well, once established, with barely any water at all.”
Fertilization is most vital in March since spring and summer are when cycads put out their strongest annual flush of growth, and fertilizer may be reapplied in June and August. Levin uses a proprietary formula he calls Cycad Special Western Blend Fertilizer, available for sale, that he has developed during two decades of growing cycads. It consists of organic and chemical nutrients (of which 10 percent is soluble nitrogen), high iron and sulfur, and six micro-nutrients. Humic acids and sulfur help acidify the soil so that iron and other micro-nutrients can be more readily absorbed by cycad roots.
Maurice Levin has done his utmost to make cycads affordable so that they are no longer reserved exclusively for affluent collectors and botanical gardens. Levin’s Jurassic Garden, located at 11801 Stagg St., North Hollywood, is open to the public Monday through Saturday by appointment only. For more information, call (818) 759-0600 or visit the website at cycads.com.

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