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Market for exotic palms goes to pot

Keeline Wilcox Nurseries, the nation's largest grower of Kentia palms, is closing next year, the victim of a wilted economy and lack of a successor in the family business that took root in 1919.

October 26, 2011|By Steve Chawkins, Los Angeles Times
  • Richard Wilcox and his sister Sarah of Keeline Wilcox Nurseries tour some of their Kentia palms, which cover an area the size of the Pentagon.
Richard Wilcox and his sister Sarah of Keeline Wilcox Nurseries tour some… (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times )

Pity the poor potted palms.

They started out at cotillions but wound up at cocktail lounges. For more than a century, they've endured dim light, stale air, the drone of PowerPoint presentations in forlorn conference rooms — and now they're confronting their biggest challenge yet: a rotten economy.

At 71, Richard K. Wilcox knows this all too well. Over the next year, he and his sister Sarah Wilcox will close Keeline Wilcox Nurseries, a family business that has furnished potted palms to America's waiting rooms since 1919.

Richard Wilcox says the company is North America's biggest grower of Kentia palms — almost all of them for indoor use. But with the construction industry drooping, business has fallen 50% since 2008. More than 1 million plants languish in the Wilcox growing sheds, sitting there — just like potted palms — as companies cut back on niceties such as office greenery.

"It's so easy," Wilcox says, "to get rid of the plant lady."

As he showed a visitor through his 30 acres of Oxnard shade houses, sunlight filtered through rooftop screens onto an endless green sea of Kentias rising from earthen pots, some buried in fragrant soil. About 25 employees tend the plants and some have done so for decades. In vast rooms, row upon row of potted palms march across an indoor area the size of the Pentagon.

The youngest rise just 18 inches while plants in their teenage years rise up two or three stories. In palmier days, the biggest, most graceful trees would have commanded $3,000 apiece and loomed toward the skylights of conference centers. Now they go for $1,900 — and no one is buying.

"Las Vegas casinos used to buy a couple dozen of these at a crack," Wilcox said wistfully. "You need big hotels, you need atriums…."

::

There was a time when all you needed was a grand home and a great fortune.

Kentia palms are native only to Lord Howe Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand. They grow too on Norfolk Island, a 12-square-mile speck partially populated by descendants of mutineers from the HMS Bounty.

In the late 1800s, tropical plants were symbols of empire and wealth, and hardy Kentias were among the relatively few that could survive the trip from the South Pacific to Great Britain. Queen Victoria was just dotty about them, leaving instructions that palms be placed beside her casket as she lay in state.

"The prohibitive cost factor resulted in Kentia palms becoming famous house plants among the nobility and aristocracy of Europe," wrote grower Kevin Williams in a 2007 Kentia history. "Royal residences and stately homes had the high ceilings where Kentias could be displayed in all their glory."

Across the Atlantic, well-to-do Americans followed the lead of their Continental cousins. The best hotels had a "palm court" where ladies gathered for afternoon tea. In 1930, a Time magazine gossip columnist wrote of an amorous young couple who "found a snuggly nook behind the potted palms in the ballroom where the orchestra had been playing."

Forty years later, they were a fixture at the White House, where Pat Nixon's press secretary reproached reporters covering the first lady for using them as cover when they scribbled their impressions at parties.

"Please, ladies," said Constance Cornell Stuart. "You are guests. And guests do not wander around taking notes — even behind potted palms."

Kentias, which also are planted as outdoor trees, still add a grace note to many a mall, car dealership and dental office. But as the economy goes, so goes the plant business: With construction down, demand has plunged by 30% to 40%, said Bob Dolibois, executive vice president of the American Landscape and Nursery Assn. The result: hundreds of nurseries closed in the last 18 months.

That spells a sad ending for a business that prides itself on its plants' ability to thrive in adverse conditions.

"Dust, dirt, dryness, dark," intones a 2007 Keeline Wilcox ad. "Keeline Kentias deal with these environmental elements. Wet, wind, wild parties, wayward drinks and willful children: Challenges, yes, but, with loving care, life goes on for a Keeline Kentia!"

::

Earlier this year, the Wilcoxes sold their land and the 102-year-old farmhouse that serves as their office. By Thanksgiving 2012, they must sell — or destroy — the remaining plants, effectively ending a Southern California family saga.

In 1919, Roy Wilcox, a successful nurseryman in Council Bluffs, Iowa, moved to California for his health. A survivor of the influenza pandemic that killed millions, he bought a Montebello nursery that sold, among other things, Kentias. He prospered, and at different times the family business put down roots in a wide swath of Southern California.

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