Kitschy ’70s L.A. Plant Culture Is Coming Back to Life

The Getty celebrates the reissue of “Mother Earth’s Plantasia” with a countercultural garden party

Macramé decor, lush houseplants, plant-based cooking, and quirky electronic music could be the makings of any hip new cafe in L.A.–but they’re nothing new. They were just as hip in the L.A. of the 1970s, when a plant shop on Melrose–which doubled as a counterculture hangout–released the experimental compositions of Mother Earth’s Plantasiaan album of early synth songs thought to help plants grow.

Now indie record label Sacred Bones has unearthed that obscure vintage album for a re-issue, dropping just as many of the factors that drove the ’70s plant zeitgeist seem very much at hand again, and they’ve teamed with Atlas Obscura and the Getty for a celebration.

The event on September 7 is part of the museum’s on-going event series Ever Present. We spoke with the Getty’s Sarah Cooper—who assembled the plant-centric day of music, talks, workshops, and other activities in collaboration with Atlas Obscura and Sacred Bones—about revisiting this music and the back-to-nature culture that inspired it in our own troubled times.

Can you tell us a little bit about the background of how the record came to be and how it was originally distributed?

The official full title of the album is Mother Earth’s Plantasia because the album was originally sold exclusively at a plant shop located on Melrose Avenue in the 1970s called Mother Earth’s Boutique. When you bought your potted houseplant at this shop, you would receive a free copy of the album with your purchase, full of music to play for it and help it grow, like a sonic fertilizer!

The boutique was run by Beverly Hills native Joel Rapp, a former television writer for Gilligan’s Island and other sitcoms, who became disillusioned with the entertainment industry and quit to open his business selling indoor plants. Houseplants had become something of a craze in the early 1970s, and Rapp’s shop was notoriously full of his Hollywood celebrity friends. Rapp and his wife Lynn penned two best-selling cartoon-filled plant-care books, and the album was among their quirky plant-care marketing ideas.

The album was composed by Mort Garson, an early electronic music pioneer. Garson was known for his interest in the occult, his series of electronic albums meant to sonically represent each sign of the zodiac, and for having composed the music that soundtracked the television broadcast of the Apollo 11 moon landing on CBS.

What was behind the plant craze of the ’70s?

In the introduction to their 1974 book Grow With Your Plants the Mother Earth Hassle Free Way, Lynn and Joel Rapp described what they called “The Great Green Rush,” where they say the houseplant industry grew “over 400 percent in four scant years.” They cited the energy and oil crises of the early 1970s, and the effects on daily life those shortages caused, as the inspiration for a new awareness around society’s environmental impacts. 

The public’s obsession with plants got a considerable boost when the semi-scientific New Age book The Secret Life of Plants was published in 1973. It described experiments that reportedly demonstrated the “physical, emotional, and spiritual relations between plants and man,” with a specific section on how plants are “tuned to the music of the spheres,” and suggests that plants that thrived when subjected to certain sonic frequencies over others. The book was later made into a documentary in 1978, with a truly incredible soundtrack by Stevie Wonder.

What do you think inspired Sacred Bones to re-release the record in 2019?

Caleb Braaten, founder of Sacred Bones Records, told me they have been working on bringing Plantasia back to the public for several years–but he did feel it was serendipitous that it was ultimately released in 2019. He mentioned that he’s noticed an increase in interest in both obscure music and getting in touch with nature right now, making this the perfect time for Garson’s music to shine again.

The process of rediscovery allows us to revisit work with their sense of outmodedness shaken off. Often this means rediscovering work that had been brushed off by critics for one reason or another in its day–which could be work by women and other marginalized artists, or something like Plantasia that was originally a promotional item for a plant shop. What is exciting about today is the ability to access these kinds of things and bring a new, serious appreciation to them, enriching our sense of the past.

Sacred Bones wanted to celebrate their re-release of the album with a special plant-filled event, and they reached out to world-wide curiosities guide Atlas Obscura. They first organized an event at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden in June, and then reached out to me here at the Getty about holding an L.A. version. The Brooklyn event looked closely at the link between electronics and plants and featured music made by bio-data software. After reading the DAZED article and learning of the album’s Los Angeles connections, we were inspired to collaborate on programming elements that would accentuate that L.A.-centric history, and Mort Garson and Mother Earth’s Boutique’s earthy, New Age historical context. That is a side to L.A. culture that has evolved, but is still very much present!

What can you tell us about the music Mort Garson made for the record? How do you think the musicians at the event will channel his inspiration in their performances? 

When the technology to produce electronic music was just being developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s by people like Robert Moog, Don Buchla, and Suzanne Ciani, the instrument presented the opportunity to create a music that was detached from all the cultural connotations of classical or traditional instruments, and all the baggage those histories carried with it. That was particularly appealing during a war-torn and morally corrupt era. Electronic music made possible an infinite range of pure tones that were unencumbered by association, and therefore more akin to the sounds of the natural world.

Moog, makers of the synthesizers Mort Garson used to create the record, are sending out a couple of synthesizers to have at the event with instruction booklets. Visitors will be able to experiment on the synthesizers themselves and experience how the electronic music of Plantsia was made!

There are so many excellent musicians working with electronics in Los Angeles right now, utilizing the same kind of synthesizers that Mort Garson used in 1976 to create Plantasia. Many that also use electronic music to reference the natural world. For the event, we’ve asked a handful of those musicians to perform new songs on the courtyard stage throughout the event. We wanted to see what ‘music for plants’ sounds like through their artistic lenses. That lineup includes Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe who uses plant-based bio data in his compositions, ambient guitarist Sarah Lipstate of Noveller who uses an array of electronic effects and a violin bow to create gorgeous sound, Lucky Dragons, Gregg Kowalsky, and Emily A. Sprague, who also performs under the name Florist.

Given that the museum’s courtyard stage is quite a distance from the Central Garden, we know we had to get some plants for the musicians to play for! So we asked Hand & Rose, a floral company run by artists Sarah Lineberger and Awol Erizku–who are well-known for their collaboration on Beyonce’s iconic flower-filled portraits–to design an installation for the stage. They are getting inspired by the ’70s and it should be really great!

Can you tell us a little about what the audience can expect from the Getty event? What do you hope they’ll learn or come away with?

The event will have several elements that are meant to playfully evoke the mood of the era that gave birth to this album, including two pop-up talks. The first is by author Lyra Kilston who recently published a book called Sunseekers: The Cure of California, which traces a multi-faceted history around immigrants that came to Southern California seeking a health cure in the dry and sunny climate. Lyra will be sharing information from her research about the quirky vegetarian cafes and groceries that began cropping up in Los Angeles mid-century that were counterculture hang-outs with unbelievable histories and quasi-spiritual shop owner gurus–not unlike Mother Earth’s Plant Boutique

Our second talk is with film writer Keir-La Janisse who will speak about films in the 1970s that picked up on the idea that plants are sentient, communicating, and feeling organisms, that could impart some kind of ancient wisdom to us–including evil. This plant-obsession zeitgeist appeared in pulp fiction like the Swamp Thing character who first appeared in DC Comics in 1971, and in horror films like 1978’s Invasion of The Body Snatchers, and ’78’s Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Keir-La will be investigating this phenomenon through some lesser-known pulp horror films like 1978’s The Gardener and 1979’s The Kirlian Witness, where a plant witnesses a murder. Little Shop of Horrors opened on Broadway not long after.

The music of the Plantasia album will be flowing through the Getty’s Central Garden all afternoon, from 3 p.m. until we close at 9 p.m. The audience will be able to meander the flower-filled pathways of the garden while taking in Mort Garson’s compositions as they were supposed to be heard-by and among plants! Our hope is this will be the fullest sensory experience of this extraordinary music.

I am very excited about our workshop with Mickey Hargitay Plants. Like Mother Earth’s Boutique, which is no longer around, Mickey Hargitay’s is long-standing plant shop in Hollywood. Hargitay was born to Hollywood royalty—his mother is Jayne Mansfield, his father was the famous “Mr. Universe,” and you may know his sister as well, Mariska Hargitay of Law & Order: SVU. He started selling macramé plant holders in the ’70s and opened a shop called Maximum Macramé or Max Mac, which like Mother Earth’s Boutique, was something of a counterculture hangout. Mickey’s team will be on-hand throughout the event to give plant care advice and demonstrate macramé, among other plant-related activities. I always see Mickey’s psychedelic rainbow delivery truck driving around town, and I’m so thrilled to have him involved in this event. His story really connects with the overall Plantasia phenomenon!

This event is structured to be a casual meandering day where you can leisurely spend time strolling the garden, pop up to the lecture hall to catch the short talks, or hang out in the courtyard for the performances on the main stage. There will even be an special plant-centric vegetarian menu in the café, and a green-herbal cocktail.

Can you share a bit about the Ever Present series, which this event is a part of? 

This series of performances was named “Ever Present” after a passage of text engraved in stones that are laid into a pathway in the Getty’s Central Garden that reads: “Ever present, never twice the same. Ever changing, never less than whole.” It was written by Robert Irwin, the renowned artist of the California Light and Space Movement, who designed the garden and envisioned it as a living, breathing artwork. He chose all the plants in the garden and arranged them in the ways that made sense to him as an artist and disregarded the rules and standard of landscaping.

I find Irwin’s defiance of typical standards–both for definitions of gardening and for what constitutes an art objects–to be an inspiring provocation. The garden sits on the Getty hill like a yin to the museum building’s yang–a building made of stone, built to last for eternity, housing collections of static objects, sorted by categories, and arranged according to a historical narrative. In this context “Ever Present,” emerged as an interesting name to attach to a series of performances or events, which are inherently ephemeral and enacted by living beings.

You might see a dance performance in the courtyards one day, and return to the museum years later and remember seeing it here, its memory echoing through time. The Ever Present series is a platform to champion artists who do not fit into any category neatly and challenge the status quo of existing genres, and it exists as a broader experiment to pry open questions around what lives around us in our present and what ultimately lasts and gets told as our history. 

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