Stabilized Plants: Death Becomes Them

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Stabilized bonsai: dead, but quite lifelike.

I first heard of stabilized plants over 30 years ago. At that time, a local company was importing “stabilized bonsais” from China (technically that would make them penjings, but let’s not quibble). They uprooted living bonsais and dunked them in a glycerin solution. The product was absorbed by the plant and replaced its sap. This resulted in a dead bonsai that looked a lot like a live one, even keeping its leaves. Imagine! A bonsai that could last for years with absolutely no maintenance!

I thought the whole idea was morbid. It gave me the creeps. It was like having your grandmother stuffed and put up on display.

Imagine: you’re a bonsai grower. You spend years lovingly preparing a delicate living sculpture, then someone buys it and instead of proudly maintaining it as living patrimony they could hand down to their grandchildren, taxidermies it!

Back and Going Strong!

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Stabilized tree: it’s made of real dried branches, but decorated with stabilized leaves. To me, these “trees” always look less like a real tree than an “artist’s conception of a tree”.

Well, stabilized plants are back in a big way. Stabilized palms. Stabilized flowers. Moss panels made of stabilized mosses and lichens. Stabilized bonsais (yes, they’re still around, but these days, manufacturers take the easy  (and cheaper) way out and make them of driftwood with glued-on stabilized leaves). Even full-sized stabilized trees, that is tree trunks or branches decorated with stabilized leaves.

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I think this fake green wall, mostly composed of stabilized mosses and lichens, is gorgeous. Too bad it’s not made of live plants.

And what I’m seeing in restaurants, offices and shopping centers everywhere are stabilized green walls.

What brought on this rant was seeing a green wall in the restaurant where my wife and I dined last night. I was thrilled at first! It was certainly attractive, but most of the plant material was off-color (glycerine preserves plants and flowers, but gives them a dark or bluish tinge) and there was lots of (dyed) caribou moss (Cladonia rangiferina) and I know that won’t survive indoors. I went over for a closer look: yep, the green wall was a fake. Not a live plant anywhere. There were even a few  plastic plants included.

What a disappointment! A living green wall would having been filtering the air of pollutants, removing dust from the air and providing oxygen to restaurant guests. A fake green wall (sorry, a stabilized green wall) is just a decoration; it has no positive environmental effects.

I Get It

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Stabilized palm: a real dead palm trunk with stabilized palm fronds glued on top. It still looks totally fake to me!

I do understand this, I really do. Stabilized plants are decorative objects, like plastic plants and silk flowers. Their only role is to look good. No expects anything else from them. And plants, live, fake or stabilized, do so much to improve a décor, to make it feel livable.

Yet I can’t help but feel disappointed. That stabilized palm in the office lobby seen above could have been a live one if only someone watered it. That stabilized green wall in last night’s restaurant could have been a real one with an integrated watering system… but then someone would have had to do a bit of pruning every 3 to 4 months. But no one wants to do “maintenance” today. We want things easy, no care, no worries, no concerns. Fake.

Somehow Joni Mitchell’s song, Big Yellow Taxi, comes to mind. You know, “they paved paradise to put up a parking lot”. Is this a trend? Will we be putting up fake (sorry, dead.. oops, I mean stabilized) nature in place of the real thing. Is that what our world is coming to? How sad!

Down With Hype

Of course, what does rile me is the hype that comes with stabilized plants.

Salespeople are careful to assure us that the process is 100% natural. And why do we care exactly? You’re selling us dead plants, after all! If I want natural, I’ll go with live!

One claims “plants retain their natural appearance, elasticity, texture and color.” Well, actually, no they don’t. Their color is definitely off: the stabilizing solutions add food coloring to help maintain the impression of living foliage, but it is never quite right… and if you touch the leaves, they feel sort of rubbery, not at all like live plants. You’d have to change the previous statement to read “retain an almost natural appearance” for that to be true.

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Real plants give off oxygen. Stabilized plants… don’t do anything helpful, actually.

Another adds that stabilized plants “don’t reject C02”. But live plants actually absorb C02.. plus they give off oxygen, which even salespeople need to breathe. And stabilized plants deteriorate over time (stabilized flowers have about a 5-year period of usefulness, stabilized foliage, about twice that). They’ll then be tossed into the garbage where they will give off C02, as they decay or are burned, depending on how your local waste is treated. Non, you can’t compost them.

Another points out that “unlike artificial plants, stabilized plants do not charge electrostatically so they do not attract dust”. Yes, but neither do they absorb dust and use it for their growth, thus cleaning the air, like live plants do. (Read Dust-Busting Plants.) And they still pick up dust and need cleaning (a hair drier is suggested), just less quickly than plastic plants.

A final one, describing a moss panel, that is, a wall garden composed of stabilized mosses and lichens. The supplier writes “Breathe deeply. This is your shrine, the edge of your wilderness.” Give me a break! I’ll breath deeply when it’s a real green wall that gives off oxygen. Why would I breathe deeply in front of a wall of dead plants?

Maintenance Instructions

20170206M.jpgDid you know that stabilized plants come with maintenance instructions? I would have thought you could just plunk them down anywhere, but apparently that’s not the case. Notably they dislike sunlight and humid air and can’t be placed outdoors.

Of course, you’re warned not to water them or mist them. Duh!

Coming to Terms With Stabilized Plants

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I’ll take Longwood Gardens living green walls over a fake one any day!

Again, remember this is a rave from a plant nut. I like my plants alive and am willing to put a bit of effort into maintaining them. Of course I’m going to take the side of living plants over dead plants, no matter how attractively preserved they are. And I do “get” why companies, restaurants, shopping centers, etc., where maintenance is a major expense, might want to use stabilized plants or stabilized green walls. Even so — what can I say! — they still make me feel just a bit queasy.

If ever I go back to that restaurant again (certainly, the food was good enough, if a bit pricey), I’m going to ask to be seated so I can’t see that dead wall. It’s just too depressing!


Soon to come: stabilized puppies and kittens! No maintenance required!

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