Robert Cohen has the magic touch with these obliging plants

Sharon Cohoon,  – November 2, 2004

Maybe you think you know as much as you want to about succulents. I know I did. They’re the sculptural little plants, usually shunted off to the side in nurseries, that you dash past without a glance on your way to check out the newest perennials. Right? Okay, now take a look at the dreamy concoctions on these pages. They’re made with the same plants we’ve been ignoring. Could it be we’ve overlooked some of nature’s choicest plants?

Robert Cohen, the maestro responsible for the compositions shown here, isn’t guilty of that: He’s been madly in love with succulents for at least 15 years. There’s hardly a container in his Newport Beach, California, garden that doesn’t have donkey tail (Sedum morganianum) cascading from it or at least one big green Aeonium rosette tucked in somewhere. Cohen admires succulents for their sculptural perfection, seductive textures, subtle colors, substance, drama, and remarkably forgiving, flexible natures.

But he doesn’t like to show them off alone. He prefers combining a half-dozen kinds in pots, blending tone-on-tone patterns reminiscent of brocades. He mixes succulents with plants that have foliage of an entirely different nature, such as asparagus fern, coleus, or curly parsley. Succulents also look great in primarily floral arrangements.

Blame his passion on roots, he says. Though Cohen is now the co-owner of the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, much of his life has revolved around the florist trade. His father was a florist, and Cohen himself owned the Windsor Florist. These experiences shaped his approach to gardening. “Everything I touch seems to turn into a bouquet,” he says. Few of his plantings are without his favorite succulents. “They are wonderful,” he says. “No bouquet should be without them.”