Lately, theming has spread throughout commercial establishments like a vine climbing a wall. Places that were already themed have inched a step further, while places that were never themed are seeingthe first tendrils of growth.

As theming grows, so does the difficulty of creating something "authentic" in inconceivable spaces, like a tropical setting in wintry Chicago or a winter wonderland in balmy Atlanta.

Preserved TreeScapes International can help. The Oceanside, Calif.-based company and its line of preserved, replicated and fabricated trees enable designers to place life-like flora in the most unlikely places.

Preserved palms Company founder and president Dennis Gabrick started out 11 years ago with one product, preserved palm trees, says Vito Milano, Preserved TreeScapes's co-owner, vice president and general manager.

Using a process similar to a cut rose or Christmas tree imbibing the water it's placed in, Gabrick was able to preserve palm trees in a manner that did not affect their appearance. Since the trees are not dipped or sprayed with chemicals, "their foliage continues to be soft, subtle and green," Milano says.

In addition, the process leaves the trees fire retardent. The trees meet all fire and structural engineering codes.

Why would developers or mall owners want a real - but dead - tree when they can have the real thing?

"These trees are attractive to landscape architects, specifiers and owners because they are real, just no longer living," he says. The trees require no horticultural maintenance, no soil, no light, no water. Moreover, the preserved palms weigh about 250 pounds, as opposed to the 10,000-pound weight of live trees, meaning a smaller load requirement.

Real trees either die or live. If they die, there can be huge removal and replacement costs. If they live, they may outgrow their space, touching skylights or, worse yet, blocking tenant signage. These trees stay the size they are the day they are installed, don't require heavy maintenance and won't die again.

Branching out After mastering the art of preserving palms, the company moved into other areas. In building its replica trees, the company takes natural hardwood trunks from Minnesota and outfits them with artificial foliage. The process works well with trees such as banyan and ficus.

But as theming has proliferated, so has the company's inventory. In an effort to keep up, Preserved TreeScapes has developed "botanically correct" fabricated trees in such species as willows, maples, oaks, olive trees and sycamores - trees that don't respond well to indoor environs. The fabricated trees are created from molds taken from living trees.

"Our trees give designers an increased palette," Milano says. "Designers are no longer limited by nature."

Besides being true to life, these fabricated trees offer mall owners and developers a powerful tool. Their hollow trunks can house fire alarms, drainage pipes, security cameras and more. "One casino housed all the cameras at its gaming tables in these trees," Milano says. "They are the last place one would expect to find a camera."

While natural-looking trees fit the mold of many themed environments, some designers are looking for flora that's a little more specialized. These special trees can range from odd-sized versions of real trees and trees that do not exist in any botanical garden or park in the country.

If a designer needs a 100' tree, Preserved TreeScapes can create it. The fabrication division has also created such custom trees as cotton candy and fruit trees for the food court at Palisades Center in West Nyack, N.Y. Approximately 20% of the company's current business involves these artful tree forms. A recent contract has the company creating 35' trees with no limbs or leaves that will light parts of a New Jersey shopping center.

Preserved TreeScapes has also developed outdoor palms and pine trees. The palms have special fronds that are resistant to the elements and move naturally. The company has placed outdoor palms in such places as Chicago and Tunica, Miss.

"Why use an outdoor palm? It's a way to carry tropical theming outdoors in areas where palm trees cannot grow," Milano says.

Again, outdoor, "not live" trees are useful in camouflaging eyesores such as cellular phone towers.

Cost comparisons In terms of invoice price, the taller the trees get, the more comparable preserved, replicated and fabricated trees are to their living relatives. The invoice price of a 20' to 25' Preserved TreeScapes tree can be triple that of a living tree. But, once the maintenance, skylights, misting systems and installation costs of live trees are included, Milano says, the preserved trees are comparatively far less expensive.

In retrofitting a center, the company can install 20 to 30 palms overnight, with no changes to the building structure in terms of renovation costs. "We give big bang for remodel bucks," he says.

The earlier Preserved TreeScapes gets into a project, the more money it can save. Once a decision has been made to use non-living trees, expensive design options that would have supported living trees can be dropped from the project and its budget. By deleting such options as skylights, misting systems and tree pits, owners can literally save hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Milano believes that no matter how thematic your center's design is, "It's no longer acceptable to put a 6' ficus tree in a mall and call it quits."

The company has placed trees in the shopping malls of such developers as Simon Property Group and The Mills Corp., across the country and internationally. Among these projects are the recently completed Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas and the new airport in Hong Kong.