(fully illustrated version)

The Seed Catalogue
A Comparative Study

by Clement Kent

This article originally appeared in paperplates, vol. 1, no. 2.

From Christmas to Easter, the gardener's mailbox is jammed with catalogues of seeds, plants, tools, and knick-knacks. Each year the firms involved sell their mailing lists to other, even less scrupulous concerns until eventually a random sampling of gaudy, badly printed and magnificently deceptive gardening brochures, contest offers, and mail-order catalogues for lunatics and devotees of hard-core kitsch comes pouring in through the door.

In this trove of wonders it can be hard at times to separate the chaff from the Chaenomeles. Herein, a short comparative study on the seed catalogue as a branch of literature.


YOU MAY WINCE at the use of the word "literature" for so degraded a product as catalogues. But, after all, wasn't Dickens serialized? Didn't Nabokov read American pulp fiction voraciously - and then transfigure its plots and characters? Pulp and popular literature is the steaming, fertile compost from which arise the radiant blooms of great writing. Seed catalogues, no less than Harlequin Romances, serve to edify and amuse a group of readers, some of whom, once they learn to love reading, may develop a taste for more challenging fare. Among gardeners, the late-winter barrage of catalogues reaches millions; some thousands of these will some day go on to read Vita Sackville-West or Gertrude Jekyll, or to create celebrated gardens of their own.

In what ways, then, may we characterize seed catalogues? What established and better known genres of literature do they imitate? What are the pleasures, and the hazards, they hold for the reader?

First, we must acknowledge the obvious: they are almost all tools of commerce. Only in the offerings of the amateur plant societies do we encounter authors whose primary intent is anything other than to sell for a profit. Unfortunately, their catalogues, while an excellent resource for rare and unusual seeds, are often dull and uninteresting. Not much more than unillustrated, alphabetized lists of Latin binomials, they have little to draw the eye and tease the brain. It is to the catalogues of the commercial type that we must turn for purple prose - as well as the violently blue rose. Commercial catalogues are primarily divided between the mass marketers and the upscale carriage-trade seedhouses and nurseries.


THE MASS MARKETERS produce cheaply printed, badly proofed, and often remarkably misleading catalogues, some of them clearly in violation of any truth-in-advertising laws. Visually, these catalogues are a treat. Full of implausibly coloured plants many times larger than one will ever achieve in the garden, they threaten to induce an altered state of dream-like, LSD-impaired perception. In this transfigured world, tomatoes grow potatoes on their roots; enormous bunches of bananas adhere, unsupported, to tiny house plants; apple trees transmute themselves into Christmas trees; carnivorous flesh-eating plants snap and wave their deadly traps; the lawns and gardens behind them glowing all the while in peyote- or mescaline-inspired colours. These are the mass-produced analogues of illuminated manuscripts. While the text sings the praises of the product, the illustrations are bent and warped to fit - twisted around the supernatural hardiness, vigour, and beauty of the sacred product like a honeysuckle around a monk's golden capital. There is also the fervor, the manic enthusiasm of the religious convert in the descriptions, which, of course, demand an equivalent act of faith from the reader.

Whereas, in one sense, these catalogues are like religious tracts for deranged drug addicts, in another, they're more like detective fiction, mysteries requiring the reader's sharpest wits to solve. It becomes an amusing game to look for the sly misdirection, the cunning prestidigitation by which a tender tropical vine is transformed into a hardy sub-zero shrub. In general, their authors achieve such feats not by the simple expedient of lying, which might after all be actionable, but by carefully choosing words that imply yet never exactly state the dubious "fact". The "Sub-Zero Hardy Lavender" bush does indeed survive temperatures below zero... Celsius. The SuperSteak tomato entry is accompanied by a half-page drawing of an 18-inch-circumference red blob, "bigger than a grapefruit", while above the drawing a caption says, "Pictured above less than half size." The vigilant reader, puzzling over the word "above", eventually notices a small, nondescript photo of a cluster of tomatoes beside the caption. They are certainly less than half the size of a grapefruit - they are, in fact, half the size of a cherry. A bold-face heading screams: "Challenge the World Record of a 6-1/4 Pound Tomato" while deep in the small print is buried the comment "they are up to 2 pounds apiece." Just enough photos are used, badly and fuzzily printed, to lead the reader to assume that the next illustration on the page will be a photo too, when it's really an "artist's rendering" of a plant that never existed. One such picture shows a pot filled with leaves of the "Rainbow Plant" in every conceivable colour; hidden in very small print is the note: "Illustration shows multiple planting." The "rainbow plant" is actually Caladium, whose leaves are all the same colour; the "artist" has depicted leaves from at least a dozen different varieties, all apparently glued together into one miraculous plant.

A diligent reader unfamiliar with the plants' scientific names can learn a great deal from these imaginative and creative catalogues if she will but follow the one simple rule: assume the given name is wrong or misspelled and try to guess the correct one. So regarded, the mass-marketing catalogues become puzzle games with an educational goal: to teach the reader correct plant identification while at the same time imparting the principles of modern surrealism. There could be no better exercise than trying to identify a plant from a misleading and partial description. And to avoid the pedantic rigidity of the taxonomist, these catalogues would teach us the free-association techniques of Breton's Surrealist Manifesto. How else could the Smokebush, Cotinus coggyria, turn into the "Carefree Royal Purple Smoke Tree, Colthus coggygrim" ? (The "coggygrim" is most poetic, as is the license of the accompanying "artist's rendering", clearly a third-grade student's version of a lilac, not a smokebush.) What boreal inspiration turned the Scented Geranium, Pelargonium, into "Nature's Own Incredible Deodorizer Plant, Polargonium" ?

Devotees of that most typically modern genre of pulp literature, science fiction, will not find seed catalogues lacking either. The technophile will revel in such space-age tools as the "Earth auger", a helical bit that allows you to drill the soil of your garden with holes up to 3 inches wide - if the extension cord on your electric drill will reach that far. Or you might try the "Airless Electric Spray Gun", clearly intended for combatting alien pests in the rigorous environment of space. Nor is biotechnology neglected, as the "Vegiforms" prove. These clear plastic moulds quite literally press Mother Nature's fruits and vegetables (while they're still growing) into service as classic kitsch lawn ornaments. Now your elves and gnomes can be made of fully recyclable material - squash, eggplants, and melons - from your own garden.


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.


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.


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.


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.


WE HAVE SEEN, then, that seed catalogues may contain the elements of various literary forms. Surrealist in their logic, medieval in their elaboration, resembling in their content the mystery or SF novel, they appear to us, their cautious readers, through the distorting medium of sales-oriented prose. "Upper-crust" catalogues may rather aspire to the condition of the coffee-table book, with its mixture of beautiful illustrations and too often shallow text. Or they may touch upon literature itself and be written by skilled essayists whose commentary is based on a deep understanding of the role of plants in culture and history.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Some representative catalogues:


Riverland Gardens, 8595 Darnley Road, Mont-Royal, Québec H4T 2A4 -- the worst yet, quite surreal

Gaudy, kitschy:

McFayden Seeds, Box 1800, Brandon, Manitoba R7A 6N4 -- good kitsch collection and useless tools

McConnell Nurseries, Port Burwell, Ontario N0J 1T0 -- surprising colours


Thompson & Morgan, P.O. Box 1308, Jackson, N.J. 08527 USA -- but watch your wallet!


Chiltern Seeds, Bortree Stile, Ulverston, Cumbria LA12 7PB, England

J.L. Hudson, Seedsman, P.O. Box 1058, Redwood City, California, 94064 USA

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

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