Cherry Creek Shopping Center—one of the region’s swankiest retail destinations — tore out lush indoor gardens and replaced approximately 3,000 live tropical plants in soil with artificial plants stuck in Styrofoam-like material throughout the mall in Denver. Ending a 15-year maintenance contract with Denver Botanic Gardens (DBG), the mall is in the process of pitching hundreds of jade plants, philodendrons, ficus trees, dracaena and other fresh plants in favor of faux boxwood hedges, plastic grasses and “silk” flowers.
Mall’s parent company phasing out fresh plants
DBG spokesperson Erin Bird said, “We’ve had several comments about the change. The parent company, Taubman, phased out living plants. The decision was out of our control.”
The general manager of Cherry Creek Shopping Center for the past 20 years, Nick LeMasters said that the mall decor has included live plants since opening 25 years ago. He confirmed that the decision to go with faux plants was spearheaded by the Taubman Company.
“This was a corporate decision made some time ago,” he said. “Live plants in this environment are challenging and incredibly expensive to maintain both operationally and [in terms of] replacing plants. Some are susceptible to mealy bugs and other disease and infestation. Add to that some 18 million people who come through every year. The plants take a beating.”
Mall fitness walkers, employees and DBG salvaged roughly half of the plants, but hundreds of potted plants got tossed in a rubbish bin They were not composted.
Asked whether the mall considered donating plants to local classrooms, agencies or other potential plant recipients, LeMasters said, “We were hesitant to donate plants for fear that we’d hand over a plant only to find out later that it had some infestation that I was unaware of, and I have to look at that long view.” He added that he had not yet heard complaints about the mall’s new artificial plants.
“Economics always play into decisions,” he said, “but at the end of the day, we felt that faux plants were a good representation of our brand.”
Owner of the landscape firm The Last Detail, Laurie Jekel designs high-end landscapes and has done business in Denver for the past 35 years. Commenting on the switch from fresh to faux, Jekel said. “That is so gross, going cheaper. Bad move. That’s shame. I hate fake.”
Leading landscape designer’s response: “I hate fake.”
Like Jekel, most gardeners shun artificial plants, preferring the real thing for a host of reasons.
“Plants are a great addition to an indoor space,” said Bird. “They add color, freshness, sometimes fragrance and bridge the in and out beautifully.”
But there’s more than esthetics at stake. While some sophisticated shoppers will agree that the plastic plants downgraded the mall’s elegant image, that might be the least of concerns. Removing the living plants could affect the health and well being of shoppers and mall employees. Research conducted by NASA, universities and corporations concludes that fresh plants are ideal living companions for human beings because plants can assist people in breathing. Live plants have been shown to help clean the air, increase humidity in an arid environment, reduce illness, boost healing, increase productivity in workers and students, and offer other natural and healthful benefits to people in enclosed environments.
Indoor plants provide many benefits for people
So the question isn’t only whether Cherry Creek Shopping Center’s new plastic plants are tacky. A National Geographic article reported on employing houseplants to purify the severely polluted air of India. If fresh plants can improve the filthy air of India, chances are likely that 3,000 plants were improving the air quality in Cherry Creek Shopping Center.
TreeHugger.com is a blog by Discovery Communications, which also produces The Discovery Channel. An article emphasizes that plants should transcend trends: “The benefits they confer should make us consider them a necessity rather than an object of décor, because honestly, good health should never be out of style.”
NASA, universities, corporations say plants help people
The article cites sound research from government agencies, universities and corporations: “According to Bayer Advanced, studies at the Agricultural University of Norway document that using plants in interior spaces decreases the incidence of dry skin, colds, sore throats and dry coughs. And other research reveals that higher absolute humidity is conducive for decreased survival and transmission of the flu virus.”
The article also quotes NASA: “Both plant leaves and roots are utilized in removing trace levels of toxic vapors from inside tightly sealed buildings. Low levels of chemicals such as carbon monoxide and formaldehyde can be removed from indoor environments by plant leaves alone.” NASA notes that plants improve the quality of indoor air. “Plants take the carbon dioxide from air to produce oxygen that humans can breathe.”
LeMasters said, “I’m not aware of any of that research.”
Taubman’s website states, “It all starts with our organization’s intense focus on planning and our history of innovation. Many of the design features we pioneered are now incorporated into the best shopping destinations around the world. Retail real estate development is in our DNA, and we know how to create, from the ground up, environments that attract shoppers, delight retailers and reward investors.”
Gardeners and shoppers alike can only hope that plastic plants aren’t the wave of the future in large, artificial environments such as indoor malls. Greeks, Romans, Victorians and other people have coexisted with living, growing, indoor plants over the ages. And while LeMasters insisted that the design of faux plants has greatly improved, he admits that they cannot replicate real plants.
Meanwhile in the mall, Restoration Hardware (RH) goes the extra mile to cultivate live plants in their showrooms. Throughout RH: The Gallery at Cherry Creek, the company’s containers display attractive mosses, banana palms, boxwoods, evergreens and lots of succulents proven especially beneficial for producing fresh oxygen even at night. The trendy, taste-making retailer even topped their massive new showroom with a conservatory and rooftop park with plenty of living plants.
While in Denver for the opening of his company’s new highly design gallery, RH CEO Gary Friedman said, “Windows and doors are important to us. Most department stores are archaic, windowless boxes that lack expression. There’s no light, no fresh air. Plants die in a department store, so they use fake plants. But we’re all about authenticity.”
Cherry Creek Shopping Center’s skylights let in enough natural light to sustain tropical plants that typically grow beneath a canopy in a natural tropical environment. One positive: The new fake plants will not require watering. Yet faux plants aren’t entirely maintenance-free.
“They do get very dusty,” LeMasters said.
For the holiday season, DBG is placing live poinsettias in the mall, possibly the last fresh plants in the common areas. “We enjoyed our partnership with the Cherry Creek Shopping Center,” Bird said, “and look forward to new opportunities of collaboration in the future.”