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
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
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.”