A West Hollywood ‘botanical museum’ will soon be uprooted


A long-standing plant nursery in West Hollywood is about to close. 

XOTX (pronounced “exotics”) Tropico Nursery, founded in 1988 at the corner of Fairfax and Willoughby Avenues, is a botanical wonderland of rare plants from all over the world.

But the owner recently sold the land to a developer who plans to build six condos and a restaurant on the site.

The owner, Leon Massoth, sells plants from seeds he’s collected or received from remote areas of the globe. 

“I have many visitors from all over the world come here who are real plant people, and they say it's the greatest collection of plants they've ever seen. But I have locals who come in and say, ‘What a bunch of junk.’ So it's all in the eyes of the beholder,” Massoth says.

Leon Massoth, owner of XOTX Tropico Nursery. Photo by Amanda Sutton.

The space is just 8,000 square feet, and yet visitors can get lost in the narrow dirt walkways under the canopy of leaves. Shelves are filled with cacti, vivid flowers, and plants with pink and orange leaves. Birds and butterflies dip in and out, while trucks lumber by and helicopters buzz above. 

“Every step here is something very, very special,” Massoth says, pointing at various plants. “This is a vine from Madagascar with beautiful purple flowers, a cryptostegia. This is a palm I collected in Brazil, a new species of syagrus.”

Massoth’s travels have taken him to remote areas of Central America, Mexico, Brazil, Hawaii, Fiji, Samoa, Vanuatu and other “biodiversity hotspots.”

Each plant comes with a wild story. One time, he was staying in a remote village in a hut that had a pyramid of skulls in it. Another time, he was in the Amazon, and his guide carried an assault rifle to guard against jaguars. One plant-collecting expedition in Vanuatu required passing through a “cannibal graveyard” to get to a “sacred waterfall.”

Alstroemeria “Indian Summer” Inca Lily from Peru, with unusual purplish foliage. Photo by Amanda Sutton.

There’s an Indiana Jones quality to Massoth. But instead of being an archaeologist who fights Nazis with a whip, he’s a botanist trying to save plants from extinction.

“I went to the Fiji Islands to collect plants, and I had targeted this certain area that was unknown botanically. They had just burned 100,000 acres of it to plant sugarcane. Who knows how many species were lost? We can't allow that to happen anymore. It's kind of crazy,” he says.

An array of succulents for sale: at center, Cereus “Fairy Castles,” with African friends Crassula Gollum that look like alien fingers and Crassula “Springtime.” Photo by Amanda Sutton. 

Massoth is now struggling to save his own plant nursery, which he’s required to vacate by December 30. 

The new owner is David Pourbaba, the founder of 4D Development, who has built big apartment towers in downtown. Pourbaba is also constructing mixed-use projects in Koreatown and West Adams, with a floor of retail and apartments above. XOTX Tropico Nursery will soon be replaced by six condos with a restaurant on the ground floor. The developer didn’t respond to a request for comment. 

The spiky trunk of a silk floss tree (ceiba complex hybrid). The seeds came from Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Florida. Photo by Amanda Sutton. 

Massoth spoke before the West Hollywood City Council during a public comment period in October, and met with planning officials. They told him that there was nothing the city could do to help him.

John Keho, director of the City of West Hollywood's Planning and Development Services Department, remembers it differently.

“Our process includes an appeal period in which people can appeal a decision to a higher body. The project was not appealed to the planning commission or the city council, and so that planning entitlement was approved,” Keho says.

Keho says the developer has yet to submit building plans. Until construction plans are approved, no buildings can be demolished. But the trees can be removed. 

That would be upsetting to many plant enthusiasts, including Dylan Hannon, who oversees The Huntington's tropical collections and refers to Leon as a “plantsman” -- a true enthusiast.

“Nurseries tend to either be very generic, like Home Depot Garden Center, for example, which is just a resale operation. Or they're specialized…  in succulents or palms. And Leon had kind of bits of everything. He had unusual palms and shrubs and bromeliads. All kinds of things. So it's very eclectic,” Hannon says.

The plants almost look like they’re pressing against the fence of the nursery, ready to spill out onto Fairfax Avenue. Photo by Amanda Sutton. 

Massoth grew up in Los Angeles. He recalls riding his tricycle to collect seeds as a kid. He made a list of plants when he was 12 years old, and he’s still trying to collect them all. “Some things are just so elusive,” he says.

Massoth comes from a family of Holocaust survivors. He says his grandfather was murdered by the Nazis and was known for growing things that other people couldn’t.

Leon studied botany at UCLA, taking a trip to Mexico and Central America when he was 17. He started working as a landscape designer, and then took over this corner of West Hollywood in 1988. “It was just an empty lot with nothing in it and a lot of hope,” he remembers.

A jewel orchid (Anoectochilus chapaensis) native to the southeastern province of Yunnan, China and North Vietnam. It has velvety maroon leaves and gold veins. Photo by Amanda Sutton. 

He has almost a spiritual reverence for plant life. 

“Plants are a wonder of the world, and it's the glue that holds all life together. Everything begins with the plants and then the microorganisms, the insects, the mammals, the reptiles. Everything is all a part. It's all interconnected,” he said.

Massoth believes that as climate change accelerates, people like him are more necessary than ever.

“What you need is a million Leons right away. We have to get cadres of seed collectors out and bring plants into active cultivation everywhere and fight extinction,” he says.

A nerve plant (Fittonia verschaffeltii) with deep green leaves and pink veins. Photo by Amanda Sutton. 

  It’s another irony that Massoth’s store is closing just as a cultural obsession with plants is in full swing. Instagram feeds by “plant influencers” are devoted to succulents and philodendrons. Macrame wall hangers are plentiful at craft fairs. And art happenings around town focus on a 1970s cult electronic album that was meant to be played for plants, called “Mother Earth’s Plantasia.”

So what does Massoth plan to do? Right now he’s hoping to find a benefactor and a new home. But he’s feeling desperate.

“Now LA is just going to be a scene of corporate nurseries, no diversity, the same direction as everything,” he laments. “We'd like to stay here and continue our work.”

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