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A Jurassic park of their own

Ancient cycads attract a subculture of collectors devoted to the quirky plants, which can sell for tens of thousands. In Southern California, it's a high-stakes scene.

March 22, 2007|Jeff Spurrier | Special to The Times

BACK in the Jurassic period, long before the stegosaurus died out and last ice age had even begun, there was one great landmass called Pangea, and it was covered with an odd little tree called the cycad. The plant looked like your average palm but was anything but ordinary. Dinosaurs ate it, so it developed thorns and internal toxins. The landscape erupted with lava, so it evolved to have a subterranean trunk that withstood the fires raging on Earth.

Then humans came along. These days, poachers pluck this botanical relic from its habitats. Now 95% of the 300-plus species of cycads are threatened with extinction, despite international laws governing their harvest or trade. Cycads have become so rare, they are to plant collectors what a Zaha Hadid limited edition is to connoisseurs of contemporary furniture: almost priceless. Almost. Devotees buy and sell plants no larger than grapefruits for upward of $20,000. Prices rise exponentially for rare species with a few inches of trunk. Some Californians have collections so valuable they call upon cameras and guard dogs for protection. Yes, security just for the plants.

All of which is remarkable given that the demand for cycads stems primarily from their appeal as esoteric garden objets d'art. Sure, in some countries the toxic root of some species is sold as rat poison, and the sago palm -- technically not a palm at all but the most affordable species of cycad, Cycas revoluta -- is commonly used as a landscaping plant. But most types of cycads are hard to find, expensive, prone to rot and slow to grow, often taking decades to mature.

Therein lies part of the allure: Cycads are the ultimate in delayed gratification. They listen to the echo of epochs, not seasons. They have lived through fire, ice and, if you subscribe to certain hypotheses on the demise of the dinosaur, asteroids falling from the sky.

For those who wonder why anyone would put up with the extreme price and patience cycads demand, just wait for the flush of leaves. It's a dramatic event that happens quickly, the bald crown transforming into a ring of leaves in six weeks. Collectors often use the same adjectives to describe what they see: Primeval. Prehistoric. Otherworldly.

Even more dramatic is when the plant declares its sex and the cones appear, male or female, erupting out of the crown. The cones can be massive, 80 pounds or more, and can produce hundreds of seeds after a year of growth. No matter that a few more years may pass before the seeds bother to send out a taproot.

Such is the pace of life when you've been around 280 million years.

WITH only two decades of collecting under his belt, Bob Burtscher would be considered a newbie in cycad circles if not for the fact that he apprenticed in the garden of Loran Whitelock, a local legend in study and collection of the elusive plant.

Burtscher was like a lot of cycad collectors when he first started. He wanted to get one of every species. He soon gave up on that dream, but still managed to develop one of Southern California's finest collections, public or private. His mature specimens on a half-acre lot in Orange County are an assortment of the rare, the difficult and the bizarre.

"This is not a garden of evolution or development but rather of specimens, high-quality representatives of the best a species can produce," says Burtscher, who, like many collectors interviewed for this story, asked that his exact location not be revealed because of the threat of theft. "This is a nice [Encephalartos] laevifolius. You don't see those with 18 inches of trunk like that. There are two Microcycas from Cuba, they're pretty rare. You're not going to go over to Maurice's and get one of those."

Maurice is Maurice Levin of A&A Cycads, a North Hollywood resource for local cycad growers primarily seeking seeds and seedlings.

Levin calls himself Johnny Cycad Seed and has made it his mission to give a cycad seed to any child who wants one. More than most plants, he says, cycads demand a long commitment -- owners with a future in front of them. Some collectors go so far as to see seedlings as investments that later will pay for their children's college tuition.

Burtscher's daughter is out of school, so he doesn't need to worry about that. But if he did, he could go into his backyard, behind two fences and under the eye of security cameras and prowling dogs, and lop one of the "pups" off his fat-trunked Encephalartos woodii, a money tree if there ever was one.

It takes five years for the woodii to produce soccer-ball-size pups, knobby offshoots that can be separated and rooted for propagation. Most everyone in California's cycad community seems to know that Burtscher's pups are about to be struck off.

He won't say how much he's going to ask for them, but finding buyers won't be hard. Though common sago palms sell for less than $50 at Home Depot, Burtscher's specimens easily could fetch $15,000 to $20,000 each.

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