Plant porn: The gardening catalogs

Public domain

Public domain

It’s January and hardly a day goes by that the mail doesn’t include another garden catalog, its glossy pages inviting us to dream a little dream of spring.

This is seduction, pure and simple. Marketers know that in the dreary days of midwinter, we long for silky petals, lush foliage and sensuous aromas and succulent tastes. They do their best to promise us everything — for a price.

Catalogs are meant to inspire and tantalize, tease and titillate. Could we not grow tomatoes as red and plump as those “Porterhouse” beauties on the cover of Burpee’s? Why shouldn’t we have a border as chock full of blossoms as the one pictured by White Flower Farm? Wouldn’t a rose by Jackson and Perkins smell as sweet in our gardens?

Of course you can, of course you should, of course it will. In the virtual world of wishful thinking, anything is possible.

Rifle the catalog pages, and you’ll see portrait after portrait of the flower idealized, the shrub enshrined, the tree triumphant. Never intruding on the fantasy is the slightest sign of wilt or rust, fungus or black spot. No slugs have drilled ragged holes through the foliage. No rabbit nibble mars the picture of perfection. No heavy rains have left the flowers face down in mud.

I begin to wonder where these plants are grown that they so completely escape the slings and arrows of outrageous nature. Are these even real plants at all or are they artists’ renderings? Wait — maybe they’re like the beautiful babes of Playboy, their every flaw airbrushed away. This is plant porn, I tell you!

A single page of a single catalog chosen at random includes the following descriptive adjectives: seductive, smoldering, scrumptious. And that's just the verbascums. It may be harder to wax rhapsodic about veggies, but please turn to the spicy peppers — hot, hot, hotter. It's enough to make you sweat.

Plant vendors don't just prey on the lust in our hearts. They sneakily toss pitches to our sense of acquisitiveness, our unbecoming possessiveness, our hidden status-seeking. Plants are "New!" "Rare!" "Exclusive!" and "Available in limited quantities!" Not for commoners are this year's offerings.

They've been wrested from the Himalayas, located in remote areas of the Japanese archipelago, stolen from hitherto uncontacted Amazonian natives and cloned in sterile, hand-blown test tubes. They've been growing in undisclosed secure locations until the moment is ripe for their debut in the horticultural world. They are the likes of which has never before been seen.

I find myself in a willing suspension of disbelief as I thumb through the pages and soak up the hyperbole. I'm a believer — and I want one of each, of course. Let's see: "A" is for arisaema, "B" is for bletilia, "C" is for Cimicifuga simplex `Black Negligee'. . . and we're right back to sex and gratification. This can't be coincidence.

Old-style catalogs try to cram as much as possible onto every page, making for an experience as dense as any Russian novel. Others, like the one published by Dutch Gardens, are now presenting one gigantic, highly detailed photo per page. No thumbnails here — you can look deep into the heart of a `Stargazer' lily, count the petals on a "dinnerplate" (really big) dahlia and practically smell the tuberoses.

I look at these perfect plants and think “I’m in love!” So much for resisting the blandishments of the hort trade. I'm just another sucker who can't say "No." When you lose control, why ask why? The temptation is just too much.

If you need to beef up your catalog quotient, mosey on over to Cyndi's Catalog of Garden Catalogs , where you will find endless lists grouped by specialty. Before you actually part with your moolah, you can check out what other gardeners have to say about a given vendor at Garden Watchdog, a consumer-oriented online database of 7,800 catalogs at Dave's Garden . Try — just try — not to get too carried away.