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Local Color

To help you create holiday decorations without the traditional holly, pine cones or mistletoe, Newport Beach's Robert Cohen has one word: succulents.

December 21, 1996|KAREN DARDICK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Although they evoke the aromas, memories and spirit of the holiday season, holly, pine cones, evergreen boughs and mistletoe seem out of place in our land of almost perennial sunshine and balmy winters.

Don't despair. Desert and semiarid areas have their own plants that lend themselves to holiday decor.

Take poinsettias, for example. These brightly colored plants are known botanically as Euphorbia pulcherrima ("most beautiful euphorbia"). The euphorbia family is characterized by plants with milky sap and small, insignificant flowers surrounded by colorful, showy petal-like bracts.

The family comprises annuals, perennials, shrubs and many types of succulents--plants that store water in leaves, stems or roots, resulting in the plump appearance of those parts.

Succulents are native to desert and semidesert regions and are popular with collectors and landscape designers for their sculptural appearance and usefulness in drought-tolerant landscapes. But some innovative designers go beyond their conventional use.

Robert Cohen adds a twist by liberally interspersing succulents to his holiday arrangements. He uses them indoors, on patios and in garden landscapes in his Newport Beach home as well as the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, of which he is the managing general partner and co-owner.

Cohen, who estimates his collection at more than a million plants, has had a lifelong involvement with flowers and gardens.

"I was born in a flower shop," he said. "My parents, Ezra and Ester, owned Central Avenue Flower Shop in Los Angeles and 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. After serving in the armed forces, in 1952 he and his brother, Al, opened their store, Windsor Flower Shop, on Slausen Avenue in Los Angeles.

Later, Robert opened two additional stores and managed them until 1964 when he sold his stores to Conroys. In partnership with Conroys, he built 10 more stores.

"It really gets into your blood, but the flower business is very hard, with long hours," he said.

Cohen ventured into real estate investment in the '60s and '70s. In 1978, he 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 the elaborate landscape.

During this time, he retained his love of flowers--especially succulent plants, which he grows in his lathe and shade structure adjacent to his house, and plants liberally throughout his landscape.

"Succulents are so easy," he said. "They always look so beautiful."

His design philosophy is based on combining plants of varying leaf forms, structures and hues, and using white flowers--including Iceberg roses, stock and alyssum--to provide a unifying color theme. Liberally interspersed are various types of succulents, Echeveria, Crassula, Agave, Dudleya and Aeoniums.

Cohen loves to create both floral and living plant arrangements for the holiday season. Dramatic, different and long-lived, they are also easy to make:

* Select a basket or other container suitable for the height and size of the display table or area.

* Line the basket with very heavy plastic.

* Select the plants to be displayed. Cohen suggests using two 4-inch poinsettia plants and four varieties of succulents that are inserted in a wet block base that serves as a water reserve.

* Place an oval floral container with water-soaked base in the center of the lined basket. Place potting soil to one side of the floral container.

* Remove the poinsettias from their containers and carefully insert them in the potting soil to the plant soil line.

Cohen uses cuttings from his garden to complete the arrangement. In the center, he places tall, spiky leaves of Sansavaria (Mother-in-Law Tongue) to create height. Next to them, he inserts various sizes of Echiveria to serve as focal points.

Around the base, he inserts cuttings of Sedum morganianum (Donkey Tails) to create a trailing effect.

* Finish the arrangement by placing moistened sphagnum moss around the basket to cover the oasis.

* Spray the succulent leaves lightly with a leaf polish.

* Add water to the poinsettias and oasis bowl and check every week or 10 days to determine if more water is needed.

The arrangement will last one month or longer. You can remove the succulent cuttings and grow them in containers or the landscape.

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