Market for exotic palms goes to pot
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.
In Irvine, it was squeezed out by a freeway interchange. In Santa Barbara, Roy Wilcox set up shop on a spectacular 70-acre bluff-top parcel. Sold for development, it was preserved by a community fundraising drive and is now a city park called the Douglas Family Preserve, after a $600,000 donation from actor Michael Douglas. Locals still call it “the Wilcox property.”
Over time, Kentias came to be the nursery’s biggest seller. For more than 60 years, the Wilcoxes imported their seed straight from Lord Howe Island. Business was booming — but there was no one in the next Wilcox generation eager to devote themselves to potted palms.
“We’d kind of planned closing over a seven- to 10-year period where we could find proper adoptive homes for all our palms,” said Sarah Wilcox. “The fact that the market has been reduced so much sped up our decision to go ahead.”
A real estate broker in Rancho Santa Fe before signing on to the family business in 1995, she immersed herself in Kentias and other indoor plants. For a while, she kept a log by her TV to note which programs made the most use of what professionals call “interiorscaping.” (Some of the later “Star Treks” were incredible, she said.)
Kentias are not moving out the door at warp speed these days. But they’re slow-growing and would be perfect, the Wilcoxes say, for big distributors who can pick them up by the hundreds of thousands and hold on until the market comes back.
Meanwhile the land’s new owner — an agribusiness the Wilcoxes declined to identify — will be growing produce, not Kentias.
That could be a prudent course as even businesses known for lavish spending hack away at their interior vegetation.
In August, London’s Telegraph newspaper reported that a company seeking to cut costs tried to remove its potted plants, provoking a “standoff” with employees seeking to keep them.
The company was global investment giant Goldman Sachs.
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