The More Things Change

The More Things Change

At this time of year, with the earth frozen, or at least semi-frozen, catalog madness strikes many gardeners with a considerable wallop. Sometimes when you are in the throes of this particular seasonal disorder, it is helpful to take time out to regain perspective. I usually do it by walking around my garden and reminding myself that gardening is more than just cramming as many plants as possible into the existing space. If I need an additional reality check, I look at my bank balance and try to remember that while the hydrangeas I crave will survive a rainy day with no outside assistance, only the presence of liquid assets will enable me to pull off the same feat.

This year’s dose of perspective comes from an unusual source—the 1947 Wayside Gardens catalog, which I found in a used book store last summer. It was so cheap and so enlightening that I bought it, knowing that a moment would come when I would need it.

When the 1947 catalog was printed, World War II had been over for a year, the Baby Boom was in its infancy, and “the buck stopped” with President Harry S. Truman. Two year old hybrid tea roses could be purchased for $1.25 each, plus shipping and handling.

Catalog hyperbole has been with us since the first mass mailing, and Wayside’s mid-century verbiage is ripe with purple prose.

“Nothing reflects so favorably upon the character, prestige and standing of a woman as does her garden….” the catalog announced. “She is sure to stand out in the eyes of others if hers is an attractive garden, although it need not be the largest or the most expensive,…”

Clearly the target customer was a woman with a love of flowers and a definite desire to impress the neighbors.

Pity the poor male Wayside browser. He might have been tempted to order under a feminine pseudonym so that he could also “Know the many thrills—the joy and excitement of bringing new beauty into your life and garden.”

Despite the dated prose, today’s catalog customer would feel reasonably comfortable thumbing the pages of the 1947 edition. From asters to zinnias, most of the familiar garden flowers, shrubs and trees are there. I found one of my favorite shrubs, Japanese Kerria (Kerria japonica ‘Flore Pleno’) on page 156. Another favorite, Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea Quercifolia) is described as being “a rather uncommon bush.” I believe that the 2000 Wayside catalog characterizes it in much the same way.

Butterfly bush (Buddleia) has been one of the hottest shrubs on the market over the last few gardening seasons. If you had placed an order in 1947, you could have chosen from six different cultivars, including the brand new ‘White Profusion’, a dwarf shrub. Now you can also buy yellow-flowering and variegated varieties of Buddleia, but otherwise not much has changed.

Current catalogs have lots of cultivars called ‘Millennium’, ‘New Century’ and ‘2000’, so it is hardly surprising that in a post-war year, there were a number of plant varieties named “Peace”. There were ‘Peace’ Scabiosas, Buddleias and Snapdragons, in addition to the still-beloved ‘Peace’ rose. With the exception of the rose, all the ‘Peace’ cultivars were white.

Botanical nomenclature has changed in surprisingly few cases. Hosta, that stalwart of the shade garden, was known at the time as “Funkia”. The plant that many people then and now refer to as “Red Hot Poker” was called Tritoma in 1947. Sometime during the intervening years it was rechristened Kniphofia.

Traditionally Hybrid Tea roses have often been named after notable people. Current rose catalogs have cultivars such as ‘Billy Graham’, ‘Barbara Bush’, ‘Princess Diana’ and even ‘Dolly Parton’. Wayside’s 1947 book featured ‘Will Rogers’, ‘Douglas MacArthur’ (undoubtedly at its best when planted with seawater halfway up its canes), Madame Chiang Kai-shek and Edith Willkie. While many people still remember humorist Will Rogers and Gen. MacArthur; and some know of Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, wife of the last pre-Communist leader of China; few will remember Mrs. Willkie. She must have been a rose lover. Her husband, Wendell, had the misfortune to run against Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election, so perhaps the rose was a consolation prize. As my father (and others) often said “Sic transit gloria mundi”—“Fame is fleeting.” It makes you wonder whether ‘Dolly Parton’ will still be doing a star turn in Wayside’s 2050 catalog.

The current Wayside catalog, with its options for faxing, phoning or placing orders over the Internet, goes all out to ensure customer convenience. However, it cannot possibly top the 1947 edition, which offered the following:

“If, as some have stated, you find so many beautiful things in the catalog that you cannot decide which ones to order, just enclose your check and let us make the selections for you as we do for many of our customers. You will be highly pleased with the results.”

What could be easier than that?

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