WILDWOOD CREST — George Miller and Carolyn Emigh have a name for the elegant decorations that arch over their pool at the Caribbean Motel.
“We call it Palmus plastica, the plastic palm tree. It is native to the Wildwoods,” he said.
The couple’s hotel was the first to adopt the kitschy decor of the plastic palm tree in 1957. Today, the trees are the signature decoration for hotels and motels across the island, a suggestion of tropical fun and relaxation that’s a powerful marketing tool.
Curving palm trees with gently flowing leaves adorn hotel patios, pools, decks and lawns. Some stretch more than two stories high, providing the perfect advertising backdrop to entice visitors with the promise of warm, sunny days and casual, fun nights.
“A vacation is an illusion,” Miller said. “You have this idea about what it will be like before you leave. You hope the idea of it comes true.”
A couple recently stayed at the hotel to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, Miller said. The couple spent their honeymoon at the hotel in 1964.
“He told me they didn’t have a lot of money at the time. But at least he could tell his co-workers he took his wife to the Caribbean,” Miller said.
The island’s iconic palm trees are so popular that former Gov. Christie Whitman declared them the official tree of Wildwood during a 2000 visit to the resort.
Most plastic palm trees are purposely designed with artifice that adds to the neon doo-wop atmosphere embraced by many hotels.
“I’ve heard people ask, ‘Are those real?’” said Tracey Dufault, director of the Greater Wildwood Chamber of Commerce. “And I think, ‘Where in the world do palm trees grow blue?’”
Blue palms are the distinguishing feature of the Blue Palms Resort on Atlantic Avenue in Wildwood.
“I think it sets the tone. It sets a mood. People are in a resort. They appreciate the look and the appeal of the palm trees,” said Dan Maloney, of Middle Township, who maintains the ocean-blue palm trees that surround the motel.
Practically everyone who stays at the resort takes a picture of themselves with the trees, he said.
“We have to special order them. As far as we know, we’re the only ones who use blue leaves,” he said.
Most of these trees have sturdy steel-constructed trunks that are anchored to the ground. Like real palm trees, they are built to withstand gale-force winds found in South Jersey.
The palm leaves are designed to be removed and stored during the off season, which helps them last longer, Maloney said.
“The palm leaves are expensive, so every winter they come in. Once you get the hang of it, it’s simple to remove them,” he said. “There are a very limited number of companies that make them.”
Nicole Hartman, of Schuylkill Falls, Pa., and her husband, Kyle, took a weekend trip to Wildwood Crest to enjoy the beach and Boardwalk.
The poolside palm trees at the Caribbean Hotel where they were staying helped set the tone for a fun weekend, she said.
“I like palm trees, so I like to see them here,” she said.
Real swaying palm trees generally can’t survive the icy clutches of a Northeast winter. But a Cape May County farmer sells portable palms to local hotels, giving South Jersey customers an authentic taste of the Caribbean.
Michael Mattera, owner of Nummytown Farm & Nursery in Middle Township, has been working with Wildwood and Cape May hotels for years, providing potted 12-foot palms that he stores at his greenhouse over the long winter.
Mattera’s clients include restaurants, Boardwalk theme parks and hotels.
“They’re all different types — Christmas palms, day palms, triangle palms. I have fruit trees like lemons and limes,” he said. “Like Coca-Cola said, it’s the real thing.”
Wildwood’s Sea Kist Motel has been a longtime client of Mattera’s. The motel accents its landscaping with live palms every summer, owner Ann Blubaugh said.
“I think visitors appreciate the difference,” she said. “They cost a lot more in winter storage fees. You have to water, fertilize and trim them. But it brings a real tropical feel to your vacation — the wind rustling the real palm leaves. It’s soothing and relaxing.”
Oasis Illusions, a company in Gloucester County, specializes in realistic-looking palms that cost as much as $5,000 each. They are modeled after real canary and phoenix palms found in desert environments.
Spokesman Bob Wear, of Sewell Township, said the company has several commercial clients in South Jersey. But there is less interest in his palms in the Wildwoods.
“They spurned us when we went to the realistic tree. They like the plastic ones — the kind you’d spot as artificial immediately,” he said.
The trunks of his trees have genuine palm bark with specially painted leaves in three colors that give the fronds the impression of translucence from sunlight and shadow.
“You get a feel for the photosynthesis taking place on that leaf,” he said.
The company is still trying to break into the Atlantic City casino market, he said. But its custom 19-foot palms adorn the Plaza Hotel in New York.
“We have 28 trees going to the Philippines,” he said.
Of course, the Philippines is home to actual palm trees. But Wear said his trees are custom built for indoor use. They do not need watering or attract insects. And they never die.
“It creates an atmosphere of relaxation and the tropics. People want something that reminds them of the Caribbean,” he said.
Contact Michael Miller: