(text only version)

The Seed Catalogue: A Comparative Study - page 4

by Clement Kent, 1991


Thorburn Seeds, Garden and Forest Feb 19, 1890, pg. ii

EVEN THE STRONGEST stomach will eventually tire of a continuous diet of Twinkies, Ruffle Chips, and Cheesies - will begin to long for a delicate terrine or pâté. Just so, even the most avid fan of mass-market wares may wish now and then to taste the delights of a catalogue in which plants are correctly named, the flowers are shown in a colour approximating reality, and something other than pansies, marigolds, and petunias can be found. This is a dangerous moment for the pocketbook, but you should justify it as you would the switch from paper cups to crystal - quality has to be paid for. Entering a realm of refined tastes and extraordinary pretensions, you open your first Thompson & Morgan catalogue.

Thompson and Morgan 2001 catalogue, pg. 39


THE THOMPSON & MORGAN catalogue is the ultimate development in a certain direction: It lists thousands of plants, from the most common to the most rare. Its restrained (but glowing) descriptions make you yearn for the extra acres needed to accommodate all these glorious trees, shrubs, herbs, and vines. Its photographs (no "artist's renderings" these) are clear and true in colour. It gives helpful advice on germination, care, and hardiness. And, a not inconsiderable extra, it has snob value. Where else, for example, can you buy seven seeds of the world's first yellow cyclamen for only $7.95 US? Or while your neighbours are growing Scarlett O'Hara morning glories on their chainlink fence, you could be training the "semivining, quite rare and choice Codonopsis clematidea" up your arbour, to enjoy its "palest blue bell-shaped blooms with sumptuous orange and maroon centres" when the Duchess drops in for tea. Even plebeian plants are nobly garbed: a simple coleus, which would no doubt be described elsewhere as having crude 'rainbow leaves', is here 'intricately laced foliage highlighted by silver-green or lemon-gold edging exquisitely contrasting with lilac-pink, carmine, crimson, salmon, white and rose centres.' If starting your seeds is too much like common labor, Thompson & Morgan will mail you pre-sprouted seedlings at a mere 500% increase in price.

Somewhere between a coffee-table book on rare plants and a DeBrett's Peerage of the Plant Kingdom, the Thompson & Morgan catalogue lacks literary interest nonetheless, perhaps because the descriptions, though full of adjectives, are brief and impersonal.

J. Wilkison Eliott catalogue, Garden and Forest Mar 14, 1888, pg. ii


BY CONTRAST, the catalogue of Chiltern Seeds reads like an extended essay. Written by one person, it eschews photos and drawings in favour of more detailed prose. It has its share of simple descriptions, but sometimes in the midst of one you will come upon some more pointed commentary, as in the discussion of the Saguaro cactus, Carnegia gigantea, which "... eventually reaches 40 feet in height. However, although the seeds germinate readily, growth for the first 30 years or so is slow, and it will be 80 years before it outgrows your greenhouse." Similarly, in the discussion of Cassia auriculata, we learn that "... young leaves and shoots are said to be tasty. Readers with access to an illicit still might like to know that a liquor has been made by adding the bruised bark to a solution of molasses."

The author of the Chiltern's catalogue (anonymous, unfortunately) writes for a British readership: instead of "fantastic", the best plants are "rather fine". She (or he) likes to make fun of the catalogue writers' habit of inventing "easy" English names for rare plants: "Asphodelus fistulosus (= hollow, like a pipe). And for those who insist on an English name, we have seen this plant called Hollow Stemmed Asphodel - write a sonnet around that if you will!" In no other catalogue have I seen the author rhapsodize for several paragraphs about a plant and then include an appropriate poem by Wordsworth. For those who value fine writing in and of itself, this is as close as you will come in a seed catalogue.

J. L. Hudson 2001 catalogue cover


FOR THOSE WHO ENJOY the seed catalogue as essay, the J. L. Hudson catalogue is another must. Also in black and white and sparsely illustrated, it is written by Mr. Hudson himself, a man with a unique and opinionated view of the world of commercial seeds. He refuses to offer any Fl hybrid seeds, as they do not breed true and cannot be grown by his clients from seed saved from the previous year's plants. He also believes in maximizing genetic diversity and so offers many old heirloom strains or wild species. His descriptions focus often on traditional medicinal or herbal uses, and he urges his clients to subscribe to the Journal of EthnoBotany.

In footnotes, in the plant descriptions, and in exhortations and essays at the end of the catalogue, Hudson quotes Pliny the Elder, William Burroughs, Li Po, J.L Hudson, Liberty Hyde Bailey, such Indian chiefs as Sitting Bull and Sa-go-ye-wat-ha, Heraclitus, General MacArthur, Bob Marley, Emma Goldman, and an eclectic mix of other writers. He sponsors seed-collecting expeditions to Mexican jungles and Himalayan mountaintops and subsequently offers the seed at reasonable prices. His catalogue often seems to be a journal of anarchist political thought combined with a scholarly disquisition on the history of ethnobotany as well as a practical guide to growing unusual plants.

Copyright 2001 by Clement Kent, c l e m e n t @ g o d e l . n e t

Previous Page Top of this Page Next Page
Articles Articles (text only) Garden Links