Whatever you call them don't call them artificial.
"I personally don't ever like to use the term artificial flower," says Po Chang, owner of Salt Lake's Supersilk, manufacturer of fine fabric and parchment botanicals. "We always feel this type of product should be treated as an art flower rather than an artificial flower."An art form indeed. From the subtle fall tones of Mount Olympus Maple leaf to the delicate violet petals of a budding iris, Supersilk's detail is unrivaled in the industry.
Each stem, leaf and petal is made by hand to exacting standards. The work requires patience and the touch of an artist. A single baby's breath bloom can take an entire day to create.
"We have to have a lot of patience to do this," Chang said.
Almost magically, polyester becomes a banana tree. Parchment is transformed into the likeness of a pine cone or a bronze sculpture. The blooms and stems not only look real, they feel real. The leaves of the African violet plants are velvety, and the cactus needles poke like pins.
Some customers have requested that Supersilk devise a means to make the plants smell real. Company employees are still working on that challenge, but in the meantime, potpourri is incorporated into some designs to provide some scent.
Supersilk, which is 10 years old, is considered the pacesetter in the industry. "We soon found out the majority, if not 95 percent of them (competitors), are copycats of me," Chang said.
But few do it better. Supersilk was recognized recently at the 1990 International Silk Flowers and Accessories Show as the top company in the world in aesthetics and design.
The plants bear such a striking resemblance to their natural counterparts that hummingbirds have been lured to the fuschia begonias the Changs hang in their patio. A tropical display in the company atrium once attracted a parrot that apparently escaped from a home or a pet store.
From the ever-so-slight color deviation in a leaf to the woody looking roots, each plant mimics Mother Nature. But Chang said the silk plant industry can do things Mother Nature cannot.
Silk and parchment flowers can be made bigger or smaller than life. They can be created in colors not readily found in nature. The plants and trees can be crafted to complement a home decor or to create a tropical setting in the middle of the Great American Desert.
Best of all, they're low maintenance. Most creations can be cleaned by simply running a blow dryer over their leaves or by a gentle rinse. And some plants can be used outdoors.
Even people who have black thumbs can have beautiful plants, Chang said. Seemingly, that's what makes the Chang's business bloom.
Supersilk has grown 30 percent a year for the past 10 years, and Chang doesn't foresee a break in the cycle.
"At the present time, we can't think of anyone who can't be our potential customers," he said.
The floral arrangements, plants, shrubs and trees are sold wholesale to department stores and retail shops. They have been placed in homes, offices, restaurants, hotels and department stores.
The Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, for example, invested more than $10 million in silk, fresh and dried flowers for a tropical display in its atrium.
Supersilk products often are featured in seasonal displays at ZCMI and Sears and Roebuck and Co. ZCMI also sells the floral arrangements and plants retail.
Price varies according to the size and variety of plants, but on the average, the plants sell for $69.99 to $99 each.
Interestingly, the silk plant and interior designs business seem to follow color and pattern trends in women's fashion. "When women's fashions change, it changes," he said.
Many businesses, such as furniture stores, consider silk plant decor that can be changed by the season a necessity, Chang said. "Otherwise, furniture stores would be cold, hard and boring."
No matter the trend, green plants will always be fashionable. "In our industry, nothing is more important than green," Chang said, "Green is such an important anchor in our living environment."
Chang, who until 1974 was a tenured professor of fluid dynamics at the University of Utah, said he fell into the silk flower industry "somewhat by chance and somewhat by accident."
In 1974, Chang took a leave of absence from the U. and traveled to the Orient. While eating in a restaurant in Japan, he and a friend wondered whether the plant on their dining table was real or a silk reproduction. He later learned it was a silk plant but he was astonished by the likeness.
After learning more about international business and U.S. trade distribution patterns, Chang decided to start a business in Salt Lake City. He did not return to the U. "I decided maybe this is an interesting product for us to learn and at least it is not perishable," he said.
The business has grown from a single rose bouquet that decorates the corner of Chang's office to a 750,000-pieces-per-year industry. More growth is anticipated. The industry is a $10 billion-a-year business nationally.
The materials, leaves, petals and stems are crafted in the Pacific Rim to cut labor costs. Floral arrangements and trees are assembled in Supersilk's Salt Lake plant at 1976 S. 300 West.
Says Chang, "This business is a booming business. This business is a blooming business and it's the most colorful business. Can you think of a more colorful business? Well maybe a paint company."
Supersilk's work force is nearly as diverse as their product line. His employees - many of them first generation immigrants - speak 20 different languages.
"We are actually very proud of all our different people from all over the world. There is a language barrier to a great degree, but they work together harmoniously and productively," Chang said. Chang, who is Taiwanese, and his wife, Beatrice, who is Chinese, also are first-generation immigrants.
Though the business has been a great success, Chang said he did not tell his 80-year-old father of his career change until he made preparations for him to attend the international silk flower show earlier this year.
He feared his father, a conservative Taiwanese who was proud of his son's university professorship, would not understand his desire to run a business.
"He would say 'Why do you throw away such a good opportunity to sell flowers?'"
But Chang said he was pleasantly surprised by his father's reaction.
"He seemed to be pleased and amazed what we can do with this product, Chang said. "I have no regrets whatsoever."