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Refusing to Be Stumped


Here, tall dogwoods from little acorns grow.

All is not what it seems at California Country Trees in Vista in north San Diego County, where faux (don't call them artificial, please) flora destined for hotels, shopping centers, theme parks and casinos worldwide take root.

Proprietors Bennett Abrams and Gary Hanick lead the way down a mossy path through a fake forest into an enormous studio where, under a 25-foot ceiling, artisans are creating olive trees, birches and yuccas.

Some are only seedlings. That is to say, they are bare welded steel skeletons resembling giant Erector sets. Others are getting their bark--a wet gray mulch--troweled on over wire mesh wrapped over the steel.

"If Mother Nature doesn't do the shapes we want, we will," says Hanick, pointing out a 20-foot, $20,000 hybrid--an oak tree trunk with dogwood branches and blooms, a "designer's fantasy" for a Baltimore restaurant.

A California Country Tree begins with a sketch, either adapted from a photograph or researched firsthand. "Like walking in the muck through the Florida Everglades," Hanick says. Small trees--birches, pines, palms--are fashioned of high-density foam from latex molds taken from real tree trunks. Trunks of oaks and other big trees are hand-carved.

To create a carved tree trunk, an artisan blankets the wire mesh with the flame-retardant mulch and cuts in lifelike markings. When dry, the trunk is painted. It may take several months to make a medium-sized tree, complete with poly-silk leaves sprouting from real oak branches fitted into drilled holes.

The branches are harvested from private properties being cleared. "We'd never think of killing a tree to make a tree," Abrams says.

Abrams, 63, the design director, is saying that in the multibillion-dollar man-made tree and plant industry, "We like to think of ourselves as Faberge."

He insists that, from two feet away, a tree must look real, with knots, burls and flaws. And, he says, "What we do is going to be here at least 200 to 300 years from now." He adds that many of the real trees from which these are copied may be extinct, victims of overpopulation and pollution.

Which leads him into a philosophical discussion about the meaning of the boom in phony flora and the link between this explosion and that in taxidermy a century ago, when English land barons displayed stuffed English songbirds under glass. Thanks to the industrial revolution, Abrams observes, many of those songbird species disappeared.

Abrams' fascination with the wonders of nature began as a child in rural Minnesota. With no playmates nearby, "the world became my playground. I would lie on the ground and, in my mind, the moss was a forest and the ants were little horses."

A self-taught artist, with flowing white hair and beard as vestiges of his turn as a Haight-Ashbury hippie, Abrams in the '70s taught himself a hot-wax method for mummifying plant life. "There wasn't any call for it," he says. He did it just because no one else was.

In 1978, in a metaphysics study group in the San Fernando Valley, he met Hanick, 41, a graduate of Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and a former Philadelphia antiques dealer. Soon, they'd started a silk flower business. Their handmade, limited-edition creations found a market niche and were found under glass, like those songbirds, in upscale living rooms. Their swan song was the creation of a Nancy Reagan rose for the White House in 1984. It was time to move on.

They were riding the wave of two trends: fake flora, most of it plastic, and the growing popularity of atriums. In 1994, nine years after California Country Trees opened its Palm Desert studio, a commission from a Nevada casino served notice that this was no mere twig in the fake tree business.

For Buffalo Bill's Casino in Stateline, the company created a five-story oak tree to tower above the slots, a $250,000 recreation of a 200-year-old legendary Wild West "hanging tree."

Having established a reputation as the only major studio turning out nothing but handcrafted, museum-quality interior trees and "nature-scaping," Abrams and Hanick have created a bonsai pine grove for the Mirage in Las Vegas, a Vietnam highland jungle for a museum in Illinois, a tropical forest for a Legoland theme park in Windsor, England, and have "greened" shopping malls and hotels from Ecuador to Israel to Los Angeles.

A year ago they relocated to a larger space in Vista and this year expect to gross several million. Not bad, Hanick notes, for two guys who once sold silk flowers "at $1.95 each."

Not that success has spoiled them. They're so low profile that there's no sign on their door. Abrams still comes to work in faded brown plaid Bermudas and a pastel striped polo shirt. But, he says, "We've moved up from a Ford van to a 1980 Mercedes."

As for the future, "We're still branching out," deadpans Abrams.

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