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The tale is part of store folklore at Strouds in Dublin, Calif. This customer comes once or twice a year, staff says, and buys $400 worth of fake flowers each time. A traveling businesswoman with no time to garden, she takes the floral mass home and "replants" her yard.

So you, with your $50 pile of flowers, shouldn't feel so guilty. But it's hard. All that money for flowers, and they're not even real.

Exactly. And home decorators can't get enough of them. This next generation of fake florals, shrubs, trees and produce look authentic right down to their slightly wilted petals, bound roots and moss-covered pots.

Forget dot-coms. Plant your money in the "permanent botanicals" market.

"I've been here for two years, and the demand is phenomenal _ perhaps more than doubled," says Mabry Cook, national sales manager for Natural Decorations Inc., the country's largest wholesaler of high-end fake flowers and plants. "It has really been extraordinary."

Did I say "fake" flowers? My mistake. And don't call them "silk" flowers, either. The new, upscale stemware lines are called "permanent botanicals" or "floral reproductions," Cook jokes from his Brewton, Ala., office, and they're as far as you can get from Grandma's plastic roses.

"It's a whole 'nother world," he says. "Each generation gets better, and the factories are producing wonderful products now. Everyone wants to buy a "permanent,' but now they want it to look like what you'd find outside in the garden or at a florist."

Cook adds, "We're seeing that our customers don't mind spending for quality _ it's just like a piece of art, or a sofa."

Indeed, faux flowers _ once merely tolerated in the interior design world _ are de rigueur decor elements now.

"I like combinations of both fresh and faux" plants, says Suzanne Warrick, an interior designer with Interiors in Lafayette, Calif. For clients, she might mix a faux floral arrangement or two on the mantel with live potted plants elsewhere in the room, creating the illusion that all are real.

And fake trees? You bet. "I've always had high demand for those, because you can get the height and shape you want, and with a layer of dust they look very real," Warrick says with a laugh. "You don't need light, plus you can uplight the tree and it doesn't burn. A live plant is much more difficult to care for."

Warrick also uses only faux plants for home stagings, including potted rose bushes out in the garden. Hotels, restaurants and stores love faux plants, too, she says, because they withstand heat, moisture and the inevitable drought that comes with putting plants where no one can water them.

"How many hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on ficus trees that die?" asks NDI's Cook.

Speaking of cost, that's about the only downside to faux plants _ unless you're a horticultural purist and stop all silks at the door. Quality faux ware can run about twice the price of fresh, sometimes more. At Strouds, for example, prices range from about $1.50 for, say, a simple gerbera daisy stem, up to $8 or $10 for an elaborate delphinium stem, Hughes says. Floral arrangements in baskets or vases (with acrylic "water") can cost $200 to $500, Cook says, and trees _ which come as tall as 15 feet _ are $1,400 or more.

"Most people are not going to spend $500 for a floral arrangement," Cook admits. "Buyers are probably the upper 30 percent of the disposable-income people."

Yet permanent botanicals make their own economic sense: "With ministems, we might use maybe 30 stems in one arrangement," he says. "With real flowers _ and first of all, you couldn't even do that with real flowers _ the price would be astronomical."

And, of course, there's the longevity factor. And the fact that some people (like the Strouds customer) are too busy to garden, or lack the skills, or have plant allergies, or don't want to attract bugs, or are feng shui followers who don't want wilting flowers to chill their chi.

"When we started carrying faux plants about three to four years ago, they were to perk up displays," says Strouds' Hughes. "They went over so big that it has really become an important category in the store."

What you'll find in stores _ ranging from Michaels to Restoration Hardware to Pier 1 Imports _ is a literal jungle of species. Flowers include the popular rose, but in all stages of bloom (NDI sells a "Summer's End" style with fading petals). Then there are fully bearded iris, hyacinth in forcing vases full of acrylic "water" around their roots, snapdragons that snap when pinched, the fuzzy man-eating-size protea, and everything in between. The branch-twig category includes pussy willows and several shades of blossoming cherry and apple branches. NDI's catalog _ which mushroomed from 16 pages 10 years ago to 312 this year _ features about a dozen species of palm trees alone. Then there's the size and pot style to choose from. (You can see NDI's products at

Even exotic orchid styles are plentiful, as are topiaries, fruited trees such as kumquat or lemon, fruits and vegetables, ferns, garlands, bushes of all categories and faux weeds such as Queen Anne's lace and horsetail.

Which leaves one with the question: What to faux next? NDI is already doing stems with faux bruises, petals with slightly browned and wrinkled edges and permanent botanical versions of dried flowers now, as well as capitalizing on the public's appetite for minimalist, monochromatic and other avant garde arrangements, Cook says.

Beyond that, he's mum. "If I told you, I'd have to kill you," he teased.

May we suggest faux lawn?

2001, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)