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Nipping reality in the bud

Drive up Park Street, past pine trees like arrogant dowagers hung with moss instead of pearls . . . past tall palms blowsily content with their middle branch spread. . .past rangy jacarandas at rest after a spectacular season of blossoming. . . . This is Florida, where not everything goes but anything grows.

Here even weeds (Brazilian pepper, Cuban laurel) grow up to become trees. And fake forestry would seem the last thing the public would ever buy.

Yet just up the block, where Park and Tyrone Boulevard intersect at a new shopping strip, Silk Greenhouse, the troubled Tampa-based chain, has installed its 98th store.

Silk Greenhouse lost $18.6-million the first half of 1990 but none of its confidence that people will spend money on greenery they could easily grow themselves. This is a mercantile concept that gives redundancy a new dignity. It is a local version of the fabled refrigerator showroom at the North Pole.

Inside the store, an earnest young man crouches over a flower pot, inserting foot-long palm leaves into an arrangement that will become a hanging basket.

The young man works contentedly, a serious, interested expression on his thin face. Now and then he rocks back on his heels, studies his work, pushes a leaf this way or that.

"Everything has to be carefully shaped," Michael Pierce said. "Sometimes it takes months to get the hang of it."

"Have you got any particular feeling for real plants and trees?" I asked Pierce.

"That's why I'm here. I've always grown things in my yard and had plants in the house.

"Now I'm switching over at home, slowly weeding out the live stuff. It's so much easier. No watering, no fertilizing. And my cats don't bother artificial plants."

Pierce is a convert. "I used to hate wax flowers. But everything here is so beautiful."

He's maybe half right. Some of the little flowers, violets, primroses, gloxinia, are quite lovely. And some plants look so natural you have to touch them to realize they are made of fabric.

But other things look just awful. An unearthly green crops up. Some fruits and vegetables look plastic.

A $70 banana plant has passable leaves. But instead of nature's purplish, sinister pod that slowly uncovers to reveal little green bananas, Silk Greenhouse has a pinkish, Disneylike pod that looks like an overdone decorator pillow on a couch.

Some plants mystify. Why buy an artificial caladium or dieffenbachia? What could be easier to take care of? To grow? Even I can grow a dieffenbachia!

Silk Greenhouse turns realism off and on, sometimes purposefully. District manager Jim Van Eepoel brings out a $4.57 long-stemmed magnolia blossom.

The thing is 6 inches across its grayish-black blossom. It has a black stem and leaves. It is quite handsome and totally unreal.

"There are no magnolias that color in nature," Van Eepoel declares. "This is for people who buy flowers to bring out the colors in their rooms."

He shows a massive floral arrangement looming 5 or 6 feet tall and wide out of a large vase: delphiniums, hydrangeas, a huge iris and a lot more. Some of these look real, some don't. But they make a statement; as it happens, a $209 statement.

The most expensive items are 7-foot trees. A clump of white birch costs $699. A smaller dogwood in full bloom (with realistic little brown marks on the edge of some blossoms) costs $150.

The wooden trunks are real wood from real trees. Designers in the Tampa factory fit fake leaves and flowers into the branches.

But these leaves and flowers are not impervious. They should be dusted sometimes with a hair dryer. And if someone spills, say, a glass of red wine on a leaf, a damp cloth is called for, and a little Woolite.

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