Everyone loves fresh colorful flowers in their home or office, but in the middle of winter, they can be downright expensive.

Hello silk plants. Glad to meet you dried flowers.

Mark Hewson, manager of A Country Rose Florist (568-1809), said fresh flowers are always the first choice on special occasions like Valentine's Day, Mother's Day or wedding anniversaries. But artificial or silk plants, such as wreaths, centerpieces and other seasonal displays, are popular during Christmas, Thanksgiving and Halloween because after being admired on the dining room table, they can be properly stored and used again the following year.

According to Deb Lewis, assistant manager at Flowers by Michelle (255-0209), there are many sizes and colors for both silk plants and arrangements, and many of the orders she receives are for delivery to hospitals.

"Hospital intensive care units don't allow fresh flowers so silk or artificial plants have become quite popular," she explained. "Also, you have people who are allergic to flowers but still like the idea of having some color in their home or workplace. And within the workplace, there are offices that don't have the appropriate light to keep plants fresh and alive, so a combination of silk and maybe some dried flowers makes a beautiful and realistic-looking bouquet."

Silk flowers brighten up any room, any time of the year, and range from large colorful bouquets to a single tulip in a small vase. The cost of the individual flower can vary depending on qualities such as petal thickness, how and where it was made, and vibrancy of color.

"This year, fresh quality Valentine roses are priced at about $89 a dozen," Lewis said. "During the year, when they're in bloom, a dozen will sell for $65. A dozen vibrant silk red roses are $85 throughout the year and can keep their look and color for an unlimited amount of time."

Hewson said dried or preserved flowers last about six months, but do become old and brittle. Silk displays, if kept clean and shown proper care, can be kept longer.

"We carry fresh roses preserved with glycerin that will last at least six months," he said.

"One of the benefits of artificial plants and flowers is that they don't need a lot of maintenance to always look good. They do need an occasional light dusting, and some of the silks can be misted with water and wiped down. Remember, dried flowers are still a natural product and will fade, especially in this dry desert environment. Even silk can fade if placed near a window where there is constant heat or sun."

It seems that both men and women are interested in artificial plants, with women having more interest in selecting a small floral display that will give the guest bathroom some color or add a certain mood to the bedroom.

However, all silk plants aren't found inside. Romie Berl of Napa Valley Pottery & Floral (451-6914) said her store inventory includes more than 200 artificial outdoor plants such as sage, lantana and even 12-foot-tall trees.

"There are so many homes now with desert landscaping and some homeowners are taking it one step further with artificial outdoor plants," she said. "Yes, there are drought-resistant trees that only need a minimal amount of water, but artificial plants don't need any water, they're low maintenance and remain green all the time. My only suggestion is to make sure they're placed in a protected area because strong winds can cause problems."

Lewis said industry leaders are always discussing ways about how to market artificial plants and flowers so they are used more often. Some of these uses include placing silk bouquets on grave sites and encouraging people to change flowers in their home each season. So a silk arrangement in December of holly and evergreen is replaced in March with daffodils. Come June, colorful iris, dahlias and lilies are showcased.

And when guests walk in and comment on the beautiful flowers, wondering if they're real or artificial, remember, only your florist knows.