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Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Leon Massoth: The Lorax of Exotic Plantlife

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Erin Ben-Moche
Erin is the Digital Content Manager at the Jewish Journal. She writes about Jewish art and culture.

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Everyone wanted now 63-year-old Leon Massoth to be a doctor when he grew up, but his green thumb was too strong. So instead of tending to and caring for people, Massoth nurtures his beloved nature nursery where, for the last 32 years, he has planted several hundred species of exotic plants in his shop, Xotx-Tropico, in West Hollywood. 

You won’t find tulips and daisies in his garden. Instead, there are Venus flytraps, African succulents, spiky silk floss trees, palms and pink snowball “cake” flowers.

“Every plant has a story,” Massoth said, walking through his getaway forest on the corner of Fairfax and Willoughby. Massoth believes his gardening abilities came from his grandfather, a gardener in Northern Greece who died in the Holocaust.

“He was well known for being a rare plant person,” Massoth said, adding, “Somehow, that gets passed along.”

The son of a dress designer and a mathematician, Massoth always was drawn to nature. When other kids were manning lemonade stands, he was selling sweet Oxalis stems. Over the past 32 years, he has planted various almost-extinct species in his backyard.

His first adventure took him to Baja, where he collected seeds and took a ferry to Mexico, then on to Central America until he reached Costa Rica. His expeditions have taken him to parts of China, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, Hawaii, Fiji, Vanuatu, parts of the Amazon and Madagascar. At each of these stops, he has encountered different plant life and brought them back to the U.S. In California alone, he has replanted several species of succulents, flowers and trees.

“I’m totally with Greta Thunberg and the whole concept that planting trees is one of the few ways we can effect climate change.”

Massoth’s plants have received critical acclaim from UCLA scientists, botanists and botanical gardens across the country. They also are used for educational purposes when local schoolchildren visit his garden on field trips. He provides a peaceful escape for those wanting to leave the city’s hustle and bustle.

Those who purchase Massoth’s exotic plants also learn how to take care of them directly from Massoth. He remains hands-on and helps with the landscaping so the plant can thrive.

“I’m totally with Greta Thunberg and the whole concept that planting trees is one of the few ways we can effect climate change, and planting them strategically, not just willy-nilly,” Massoth said. “This has been known for a long time.”

If you notice new species of wildlife hanging around Southern California, Massoth says it’s not by coincidence. Over the past couple of years, he has been selling a plant that specifically helps sulfur butterflies.

“Without this plant, we don’t have a specific species of butterflies running around,” Massoth said. “We sell plants that actually feed the young. We are on the monarch migration route. I don’t know what they’re going to do without us. It happens all the time. When we complete some sort of garden project, suddenly, there are butterflies in the neighborhood and people from either side of the block are asking where [they came] from.”

Lately, Massoth’s nursery has turned into an adoption agency after new management bought his land. After selling his exotic “babies” to Huntington Botanical Gardens, among other customers, his new priority is to see his plants continue to live and thrive in new places.

“I’m supposed to be out already, but we are trying to move plants,” Massoth said. “When you plant things, the birds come, the butterflies come … . We keep on holding out for some miracle, but we are looking for a new place. People need contact with plants. It’s the oldest form of contact with humanity.”

Following the Journal’s interview with Massoth, he said they found a new location for his plants to call home. Though not everything will be rescued, he has a permanent residence at 1528 S Robertson, just south of Pico Blvd next door to the Chabad Israel Center. He will be able to continue planting speicies and educating others.

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