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Artificial plants are, ahem, taking root


There comes a time in every gardener's life when artificial flowers really are better than the real thing. It's normal to resist, but incredibly realistic fakes, now known in the business as "permanent botanicals," have gained widespread acceptance.

The consumer might need the help of a honeybee to tell the difference between real and artificial blooms.

"People love flowers, and permanent botanicals are getting so realistic now, some are better than real," says J.R. Koontz, a florist in Wichita, Kan., who carries a hand-picked selection of high-quality permanent botanicals. "Now there is so much detail, some of these plants even have root structures."

Consumers aren't settling for mere approximations of flowers, Koontz says.

"They don't just want a rose. They want the thorns, they want the veins in the leaves. They want people to have to go over and touch it just to see if it's real," Koontz says.

New techniques and materials make this possible. Silk and other textiles are being widely used these days. In the fanciest products, stems are wrapped and colors are applied by hand.

Permanent botanicals are also coming out of the dark corners of parlors, boardrooms and lobbies of high-rise buildings and into the light.

Ingeniously manufactured flowering shrubs, potted plants and hanging baskets can be relied upon to look good anywhere -- in a breezeway, on the front stairs or on the porch. Direct sun will age them prematurely, but the new botanicals are resistant to ultraviolet rays, so a little dappled light is fine.

Koontz buys his permanent botanicals from several companies, including Winward Silks, which has its corporate headquarters in the San Francisco Bay area and showrooms across the United States as well as in Canada and Hong Kong.

The company tracks fashions in color and style, and responds with permanent botanicals that keep up with the trends as well as the seasons.

Nature is the standard against which artificial flowers, buds, twigs, seed pods and foliage are measured. The company believes nothing is impossible.

Another firm, Permanent Foliage of New York, designs entire gardens of permanent botanicals. City gardeners especially appreciate the advantages of no-fuss foliage, says Lawton Tootle of Permanent Foliage.

"In New York, people have rooftop terraces. They live in wind tunnels," Tootle says. "Plants suffer abuses in the city that they wouldn't in the country. Permanent botanicals are very popular here."

Tootle's company makes fancy topiary shrubs, cypress trees and even boxwood hedges, all of plastic.

The company uses spray paint to create naturalistic shadows and grinds up moss to make a paste that ages artificial tree trunks. Birch trees made with PVC pipe are scorched to give the trunks their characteristic black streaks. Occasionally, real grape vines are incorporated into a design.

People find these artificial landscapes extremely convincing. One customer had to transfer some of his housekeeping staff from his city apartment to his home in the country, Tootle says, because they insisted on watering the plastic shrubs.

The cost of permanent foliage plants varies according to the plant, the supplier and the amount of custom work required. A basic boxwood hedge costs about $25 per square foot -- cheaper than the real thing, Tootle says.

The price goes up from there. Custom work may cost hundreds of dollars per square foot.

Consumers on a budget may wish to shop around. Last summer, Pier 1 carried a line of stylish permanent botanical potted daisies, orchid plants, ivy topiary, tropical banana leaves and cut flowers priced between $4 and $150.

"It all depends on how real you want it to be," Koontz says.

Compared with the price of real plants, permanent botanicals are a bargain. When it comes to care and upkeep, there is no contest.

"Guess what -- all of us are working, and we're not home playing pitter-pat," Koontz says. "Even for people who are lucky enough to be able to stay at home, do they really want to spend their time watering the plants?"

Maintenance Tips

Here are some suggestions for making the most of permanent botanicals of all kinds.

Keep them out of direct sunlight.

Dust plants with a feather duster.

Test the dyes by dabbing plants with a moist cloth. If the colors are fast, clean the plants by rubbing lightly.

Plants in high-traffic areas may need to have their stems and flowers rearranged from time to time to keep their natural shape.

Plastic shrubs, trees and topiary can be hosed off. Don't use a power-wash nozzle. Misting works just fine.

If you get tired of your artificial plant, put it in a box in the closet for a while. When you bring it out again, replace the flowerpot to give the plant a fresh look.

-- Marty Ross


Winward Silks, 3089 Whipple Road, Union City, CA 94587; or 800-888-8898, sells permanent botanicals, holiday items and decorative accessories wholesale and to the designer trade only. Retail customers can find the company's products through florists and other suppliers. The company does not have a retail catalog.

Permanent Foliage Inc., 122 W. 26th St., New York, NY 10001; 212-255-3867 or, offers permanent foliage plants, hedges and topiary shrubs wholesale and to the designer trade only. The company does not have a retail catalog.

J.R. Koontz, 155 N. Market St., Wichita, KS 67202; 800-362-9705 or www.360wichita. com / tours / retail / jrkoontz.html, is a floral and gift shop. The company does not have a catalog.

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