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The Plant Healer


Some people find stray cats or dogs at their doorstep. Allegra Woods finds plants. Sickly succulents, hydrangeas without hope, falling ferns. Plants left in the quiet of the night by neighbors cleaning up, moving on; in the light of day by relatives and friends who know that if anyone can give a sad plant a lift, it is Woods.

The plants bring to life an outdoor corridor at the French Normandy-style garden apartments where Woods lives in the Mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles. On stands and tables, in clay, ceramic and plastic pots, the plants line a walkway between the garage and the eight-unit property she and husband Doug manage for her parents. The dozens of flowering and foliage plants came to her as castoffs. Her application of water, fertilizer and consistent care turned them into thriving--and in some cases dramatic--pictures of health.

One plant dominates the container garden--a spectacular Cereus peruvianus spreading 20 feet from its 15-gallon tub. This is one of Woods' favorites, because of the tree-like form and large white flowers that unfurl at night.

Also in her garden are hydrangeas with fat, vivid blue flower clusters, cymbidium orchids, one with 12 flower spikes, an assortment of geraniums, azaleas, miniature roses, spider plants, succulents and ferns. A statue of a benevolent Kuan Yin, the Chinese goddess of mercy, occupies a place of honor and several pieces of colorful pottery and folk art are interspersed among the pots. A mirror behind an orchid reflects the flowers and makes the space seem larger than its 10-by-20 feet.

Unplanned Hobby

Woods never planned to rescue plants. Her first save occurred several years ago, on behalf of her sister, Victoria Yust, who asked her to nurse a sickly palm struggling to survive as an indoor plant. Woods agreed and with watering and fertilizing, the palm thrived.

Next came a cymbidium orchid (the same plant that rewarded her with 12 bloom stalks this year), followed by numerous miniature roses, hydrangeas and other plants discarded by their owners when the flowers faded and plants drooped.

"I like all plants, but I'm especially interested in ones with odd-looking shapes," Woods said, pointing out a Snake Plant (Sansevieria trifasciata) that had been abandoned when a tenant moved away.

"As tenants learned about my taking in plants, some would leave their plants at my door when they moved out," she says. Recently, she discovered a bromeliad left behind when its flower was past its prime.

Although Woods, 33, comes from a family of garden enthusiasts, she didn't join them until she was in her late teens. Her mother grows roses and orchids and her grandmother also was renowned for her green thumb.

"I think it goes back further than three generations because everyone in my mother's family is a superb gardener," Woods says.

Woods wasn't especially interested in plants while growing up. While her mother tended her large garden, Woods preferred her studies and reading. The turning point came in 1988 when her parents, Larry and Clara Yust of Los Angeles, went to Europe and left her in charge of their rose garden, with its hundreds of hybrid tea, floribunda and grandiflora roses.

It was an especially hot summer, she recalls, and she had to get up early in the morning to water them with a hose because her mother didn't use automatic sprinklers. She watered them faithfully and implored them: "Please don't die before my mother returns."

They didn't die and in the process, she discovered that she liked taking care of plants.

Doses of Water and Fertilizer

"Gardening pulls me outdoors," she said. Her work producing the annual L.A. Blue Book Society Register of Southern California keeps her indoors at her computer or telephone most of the time. She looks forward to the time she spends with the plants. Woods says she hasn't any special secrets other than giving her plants regular doses of water and fertilizer and says people wouldn't fail plants if they'd do the same. "Some people have the best of hearts when they bring plants into their homes but then they don't extend themselves and take care of them," she said.

Woods' collection continues to grow. Recently, a woman rented an apartment in the building complex and received three plants as housewarming gifts. She observed Woods tending the patio plants and felt her house presents would do better under her care. Woods agreed to adopt them.

So, wondering just where you can drop off your wilting plants? Sorry, Woods doesn't give out her address. She loves doing what she does but doesn't want to be inundated.

Of course, there is another option open to owners of bedraggled plants everywhere: Give them a second chance yourself.

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