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The other Christmas tree

Times Staff Writer

NO offense to the rest of the country, but there’s something so Eastern about Christmas, so Hallmark special, so Anne Heche on ice skates, dusted with snowflakes. To enjoy just how different Christmas is in California, witness the jade plant. Across most of the country, it is a houseplant, whose needs extend little beyond a sunny spot on a window ledge, the occasional drink of water and a light pass with a feather duster.

Here in Southern California, it is a garden shrub, capable of becoming a 6- to 15-foot-tall tree, our very own Christmas tree, which every December is crowned by a cloud of tiny white flowers.

Jade has been loaded with so many associations that another could scarcely hurt it. Of all the plants brought to Los Angeles from all over the world, few other imports have survived the waxing and waning of our enthusiasms with quite the same stoicism.

Jade is a Blanche du Bois: It depends on the kindness of strangers. It cannot reproduce without a curious gardener taking a cutting and planting it. One way it won’t spread is by seed. So much of the jade in America came from cuttings from the same plant, that even if bees visit the flowers and spread the pollen, it is highly unlikely that there will be any viable seed. Jade is not self-fertile.

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Currently, it seems that jade’s curiosity value is low. It’s not uncommon to see great clumps of it tossed on parkways after a house is sold and a new owner decides to start over. “Californians are jaded about jade,” remarks John Trager, curator of desert collections at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. Trager, himself a jade admirer, remarks on the sculptural lines of the plant and the translucence of the leaves -- its ability to capture and hold light, in essence to glow every dawn and dusk.

It seems to suffer from nonspecific exoticism. The tendency of plant collectors to put jade in china pots and prune it into extreme forms has given it a reputation for being a bonsai plant. There are all kinds of wishful notions about it being a “money” plant (which it is for canny nursery owners). Trager says the strongest connotation in California seems to be with 1960s housing tracts and a Jetsons-era look. Jade would be the new hedge when we went to Ralphs in a space jet.

In fact, jade is from the Eastern Cape of South Africa, an area bordering land that has a climate nearly identical to that of Southern California. Long before the ecology of plants that adapted to arid summers was well understood, jade was plucked from South Africa and whisked off to Europe by tall-ship botanists. By the mid-18th century, the shrub “umxhalagube” had made it to Europe and been renamed according to the emerging Linnaean classification system of the day. The genus became Crassula, the species ovata, meaning “thick” and “egg-shaped,” in both cases referring to the leaves.

AS the American West opened up, bringing succulents to California was like bringing coal to Newcastle. We already had agaves and cactuses. The state needed citrus, stone fruit, alfalfa. In his book “Desert Gardens,” horticulturist Gary Lyons found California nurserymen slowly working with American succulents from the early 19th century, particularly before water was funneled in from the Owens Valley. Then in the 1930s, he says, South African desert plants, including jade, euphorbias and aloes, began spicing up the succulent trade. The result: a long, if never dominant, tradition in California of landscaping with succulents, and the spangling up and down the state of otherworldly gardens, including the Desert Garden at the Huntington.

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Because of the vagaries of fashion, Lyons worries about the future of these, particularly the privately owned ones. There is so much more to the plants than style. Their sculpted fortitude has much to teach us about the workings of nature, he thinks. Standing in the Desert Garden at the Huntington, where he has worked as curator since 1965, he stares at a 5-foot jade plant in full flower and says, “The interesting question is: How did it get that way? What does it mean?”

In the case of jade, it means that this South African import endured similar if not identical environmental pressures as our Western natives did: scorching summers and little summer water other than marine layers settling as dew. Unlike porous broad-leafed plants, many succulents protect against water loss by closing the pores in their leaves during the day. Only at night do they open the pores to take in carbon dioxide for photosynthesis. In extremely dry conditions, they will keep the pores shut at night too.

Something about South Africa created not just jade, but half of the 300 or so species that make up the Crassula genus. They look wild, like sea anemones, fungi, sponges -- often blobby and beautiful.

They are hard plants to kill, says Trager, though a freeze will turn them to mush, meaning jade is not for mountain gardens. Jade tolerates shade, but its color is best in the sun, he says. It brings out the red tinting around the edge of the leaf. Plants in shade may or may not flower, and depending on species and the temperature variations, the flowers may be white or pink.

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IT should be stated that jade is not as tough as our Western plants. It ain’t an agave. On the Eastern Cape of South Africa, it enjoys some summer rain. However, gardeners who have dropped some aloes and jade into their California succulent garden will know that jade doesn’t need nearly as much water as most irrigated gardens. Although all Los Angeles xeriscapes should be sprinkled at least once a month to wash smog and grit from the foliage, jade stands up very nicely most summers here without any irrigation. Those plump East Cape leaves might become a bit wrinkled, but one good winter rain and they will plump up again.

Whatever we do, we shouldn’t regard the plant’s succulence as a sign of edibility, says Trager. “While they are juicy inside, they have a lot of mucilage, which is the slimy material -- salts and things -- which often are quite bitter.” Smoothness, he warns, could mean that it’s poisonous, and as such didn’t need thorns. In the U.S., it has no known browsers; in South Africa, tortoises are said to eat the leaves.

In the Netherlands, jade is so prized that there are successful nurseries dedicated to propagating it, says Trager. Here, although it can be found in nurseries, occasionally at crazy Eastern prices, save your money. Unless it is one of the pink flowered or variegated varieties, it’s best to take a pup from a neighbor’s garden. No plant grows more easily from cuttings: Sprigs knocked off by a dog will root. Just tuck the stem in the earth, and let water, sun and time do the rest.

In South Africa, jade flowers in late spring, early summer or the dead of winter. Here, it flowers in December. The plant that holds its breath by day and respires by night clearly has its physiological imperatives for blooming when the sun is lowest in the sky, and nights the longest. However, nothing about that dims the seasonal delight of the sudden appearance every December of jade’s canopy of star-shaped white flowers. Let this be the first proposal that jade become the official Christmas tree of Southern California.

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Emily Green can be reached at emily.green@latimes.com.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Mining for jade plants

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In California, jade is among the succulents that are good xeriscape solutions for gardens immediately around structures in fire zones. Any number of websites specialize in rare Crassulas. To use the sites, the name jade is too common. Here is a quick tour through some of the species of Crassula and cultivars of C. ovata.

Crassula ovata (synonyms include C. portulacea and C. argentea, common names jade, money plant, dollar plant, happiness plant). Distinctive cultivars include ‘Variegata’ with variegated leaves, ‘Obliqua’ or California Red with red-tipped leaves, ‘Rubiflora’ or Pink Flowering Jade. ‘Pink Beauty’ has deep pink flowers and can hold its own with geraniums.

Crassula arborescens or silver dollar jade. Similar to C. ovata; more elliptical leaves, deeper redness to leaf margins. According to the South African database www.plantzafrica.com, C. arborescens occurs only in the Little and Central Karoo; its leaves have a distinct waxy bloom and are almost spherical. Can be used as a hedge.

Crassula radicans or red carpet. Ground cover, with red freckling, like German Forellenschluss speckled lettuce. Red intensifies with sunlight.

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Recommended reading

“Succulents: The Illustrated Dictionary”: By Maurizio Sajeva and Mariangela Costanzo (Timber, 1997).

“Desert Gardens”: By Gary Lyons and Melba Levick (Rizzoli, 2000).

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Recommended visit

The Desert Garden: The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino; (626) 405-2100. The shy, kind man with the cloth cap will be Gary Lyons. Ask him anything.

-- Emily Green


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