Rossano Porcelli dislikes the word "fake." Even artificial seems, well, too artificial. Synthetic will do, and the fancier French "faux" is fine. Clients who peruse his Westlake company's Web site (www.Earthflora.com) will find its wares classified as "signature alternative foliage."
The phrase fits. These are not your mother's picked-from-the-dime-store-bucket bouquets. Modern materials and meticulous craftsmanship which includes forming flora that is not quite perfect have made nongrowing plants a fast-growing trend, especially among the busy and botanically impaired.
The thousands of blooms, branches, topiaries, grass mats and trees Earthflora imports may be plastic or polyester, says Porcelli, who started the business about six years ago with his wife, Carrie, "but they're not cheap-looking." Trees and branches are made of real wood, and many of the leaves, fronds and blossoms are silk. All invite the pinch test, even those found nowhere in nature.
Porcelli recalls one client whose dream tree ended up sporting limbs of oak, maple, sycamore and a few other species. (The company designs its more cumbersome requests by first sending out sample branches, with or without seasonal foliage. Apparently, some folks just can't decide.)
Unusual requests are OK with Earthflora. Its Web catalogue has a "Fantasy & Display" category shopped mostly by organizations that put on whimsical events such as fashion shows and themed benefits, or by stores itching to put out their swimsuits in February. "But we'll make anything for anybody," says Porcelli. "They want it. We make it."
Most individual buyers, though, prefer real-looking installations, even if their selections would never sprout for real where they intend to "plant" them. Porcelli keeps photographs from an Ohio customer who turned her back yard into a "little vacation island" by surrounding her swimming pool with lush, full-sized palms. It does look serene and paradise-like if you block out the unmistakably Northern trees towering in the background.
Believe it or not, Porcelli says, outdoor faux palm trees are hot sellers in Florida, where, though native, living palms can be hard to keep healthy. Likewise, artificial Japanese maples are popular in climates that challenge their delicate, expensive live counterparts. People also buy large, ordinary outdoor trees Earthflora's tallest peak at nearly 30 feet simply because poor soil, too much shade or lack of growing space won't permit a real one of the same type.
The newer faux trees are waterproof, cold- and heat-proof, and chemically protected from the ultraviolet light that can fade foliage or turn it hues that are not of this world. Large indoor trees, understandably, also are flameproof.
By far, the biggest reason households and businesses want faux plant life is that they require virtually no care and cannot die even at the hands of the most inept gardener.
"A lot of busy people don't have time to water plants," Porcelli says; to feed them or battle bugs and parasites, let alone master the brain surgery-inspired skills needed to keep a bonsai shaped, small and alive. (The miniature, notoriously finicky trees are among Earthflora's most popular).
Faux grass, too, is coming into its own; not just the small pieces sought by pro shops to show off golf balls, but entire outdoor lawns. Depending on its size, an artificial lawn can be cheaper than real turf in the long run, Porcelli says, when you consider the plusses: No mowing, no watering, no weed-whipping or killing, no burnt thatch, no hungry insects (they may explore, but find no reason to stay), no red thread disease and no doggy lavatory spots. The grass mats, sold in squares, are favored by British clients who use them to fill out their relatively small gardens of box hedges, English roses and stone pathways. The Brits are fond of cacti, too, he says, though most of those go to Mexican restaurants here.
Though the company boasts a growing international clientele, the majority of Earthflora's customers order online from throughout the United States and Canada. Business is good. The company has provided trees and topiaries for American Airlines gates at airports, Ralph Lauren and DKNY stores in New York, Disney World, Disneyland and hotels from coast to coast. Clients pay anywhere from a few dollars for a single stem to several thousand for a large, made-to-order tree.
Porcelli does not advertise; most business comes by word of mouth. The client who drew attention to Earthflora recently was music mogul Andrew Rasiej, who ordered $2,000 worth of grass squares embedded with multicolored crocuses to create a 20-by-12-foot wall of "perpetual springtime" in his Manhattan townhouse. A story on his spectacular home (roof lawn, indoor fish pond) appeared in The New York Times on February 19.
Porcelli is still a little astonished at how alternative foliage has taken over his life. The 33-year-old native Clevelander is the scion of the family that owned Porcelli's restaurant in Little Italy, where he once worked as a chef. "From food to artificial flowers," he says. "Well, I always liked to be creative, and I still like to cook."
Carrie Porcelli is the one who grew up with artificial greenery and blossoms. Her father, a local faux foliage wholesale dealer for more than 30 years, orders the custom-made blooms and branches from Hong Kong. There are a few manufacturers in this country, Porcelli says, but they don't offer the variety it takes to attract clients like Rasiej, and to stay competitive in a growing market. Carrie, who worked for her dad as a girl ("My wife can make a tree," Porcelli jokes) suggested selling the products online.
In April, the Porcellis and their three children, moved into one of Westlake's upscale developments where the lawn, when they get around to putting it in, will be living grass, he assures. Naturally, faux plants grace almost every space in the new home not taken up by toddler or baby gear. Yet on a table near the phone, which lists 29 waiting business calls, is a bunch of white roses too brown and askew in their vase to be fake.
"She bought them," says Porcelli of his wife, who is out today with both children and the dog. "Probably for a little relief."
Michele Lesie's idea of flower-gardening is tearing a seed packet open with her teeth and scattering its contents with one hand while holding a wine glass in the other. She may be reached through firstname.lastname@example.org.
INFORMATION BOX. PAGE 10:
To contact the company, go to www.Earthflora.com, or call 1-877-252-1675 toll-free or 440-899-4947. The company has a by-appointment-only showroom in Cleveland.
© 2004 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission