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Plants, flowers, shrubs

Horticultural Hucksters

by Wes Porter
Thursday, June 15, 2006

Huckster (huk’ster) n. 1 One who retails small wares, provisions or the like; a peddler; hawker; especially, one who raises and sells garden products. 2 A mean, venal fellow; a petty jobber or trickster . . . Funk & Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary (International Edition)

Proven Winners® Color Choice® offers 50 spectacular shrubs for this season. This includes the Sambucus ‘Black Lace’™ that, they say, is "the plant for the passionate gardener." Lacy-leaved, with purple-black foliage, the pink flowers are followed by reddish-black berries that "can be harvested for making elderberry wine and jam, or left on the plant to attract birds and other wildlife." Funny they didn’t say that birds feasting on the berries leave purple droppings — guess where? Very limited numbers are being released onto the market this year. Unless you got lucky, you’ll have to wait until next season for this exceptional new addition to the gardener’s palette. Whether this is an act of inspired marketing or heavy huckstering depends on your viewpoint.

It is, however, far from exceptional. Indeed the aggressiveness with which the horticultural industry has embraced marketing would at times leave used-car salesmen in the shade.

Landscape Ontario, the acclaimed horticultural trades association, gave away a free 50-page publication of 148 new plants for 2006. The fourth issue features annuals, perennials, woody plants and roses complete with colour photographs and descriptions. These latter appear to have been supplied by the commercial developers and wholesale nurseries growing the plants. If there has been independent test growing in Ontario it appears to have escaped the compiler’s attention.

In fairness, such wholesalers as Epic do test new introductions locally, and field trials commenced in the past few years at the University of Guelph are a very welcome addition.

The Landscape Ontario publication was available at Canada Blooms, now marking a full decade of annual excellence. Here hucksters have their way again, every year there being a featured ‘plant of the year’. This past March it was ‘Josephine’ clematis being sold through Home Depot. How one was to keep this alive for a couple of months until planting time taxed many a keen gardener.

They are hardly alone. Q & Z Nursery, Inc., a wholesale grower of hostas, offers 41 new cultivars for 2006. This will add to the 5,000 or so cultivars already registered — some having sold for thousands of dollars. And that is each — in U.S. dollars.

Loblaws proclaims a "Hosta Drama!" And if that doesn’t grab you, try their "peonies from heaven, " "made in the shade," "rocky mountain high" and more, much more, of the same.

Even if your chain doesn’t feature garden centres, you can and must get on stage, as gardening is the "in thing." Zellers even has kids’ gardening gloves, along with a polyresin Buddha, a windmill with lights and the inevitable cement statues, birdbaths, pedestals and fountains.

It will come as a surprise to many gardeners, but landscape fabric is a new product, at least according to a Canadian Tire flyer. Still, their mowers are unexcelled for value and selection, including urban models both electric and push reel types.

What is so objectionable about this hawking of masses of new plants and products is that little of it is adequately tested if, indeed, it is tested at all. Most new plants offer little if any advantages over older selections. But of course the older plants cannot be trademarked, registered and clasped to the huckster bosom.

Products mass-produced in China are of inferior quality and seldom withstand the rigours of the Canadian climate for long. Exploitation of any one group of plants presents exposure to pathogens and pests — witness the threats of daylily rust and hosta virus X.

True gardeners are interested in the growing experience. Purchasing all that is new is not gardening and the practitioners of such are not gardeners. Those that demand instant gardens are known behind their backs as "Chinese elm people" or "plonkers." Neither are exactly complementary terms.

Returning to Funk & Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary, we discover that huckster came into the English language from the Middle Dutch hoekster, which in itself is derived from heuken, to retail. Could it be just coincidental that the two national groups most associated with commercial horticulture are the English and the Dutch?

Wes Porter is a horticultural consultant and writer based in Toronto. He has over 40 years of experience in both temperate and tropical horticulture from three continents.