Thursday, March 3, 2011

In Which I Lose All Respect for the Burgess Seed and Plant Co. of Bloomington, IL

The husband gets some outdoor gardening catalogs, which is a long story.

The two we've gotten so far (Gurney's and Burgess) each have a single page devoted to house plants, which in Gurney's case seems to mean mostly citrus and bananas. The Burgess catalog, though, is a little more experimental, and includes (in addition to the citrus and bananas) a few weirder things, like a yellow Schlumbergera, a Stapelia, and a Billbergia. And then we have this:

There are many, many things wrong with this ad, but I suppose one has to begin the critique with the observation that the plant in the illustration is not a prayer plant. I see a vague resemblance to Aphelandra squarrosa, or perhaps tobacco. I might even believe Aglaonema. But there's nothing called "prayer plant" that looks anything like this picture.

Unlike the descriptions of the Schlumbergera, Stapelia, and Billbergia, there's no botanical name included in the description, but the most likely plant being offered, if they're calling it a "prayer plant," would be a Maranta leuconeura: there are several varieties of those, and it's a little obnoxious that they don't tell you which one you're getting, but that's probably at least the species. It's not the only possibility, though: other plants in the Marantaceae also raise and lower their leaves, and a couple Calatheas were also called "prayer plants" in the database. (Also, the sensitive plant, Mimosa pudica, folds up its leaves at night and is therefore a remote possibility, though I've never seen it called a prayer plant.)

"Large, variegated, and several lovely shades of green" is about as useless of a description as I could imagine:

  • That the greens are "lovely" tells you exactly jack and shit.
  • "Large" isn't quantified, though if you were going by the illustration, I suppose you'd deduce that the leaves are about the size of a child's head, which is what, like, ten inches (25 cm) long? Give or take?
  • "Variegated" means at least two colors, so "variegated" plus "several shades of green" is redundant and uninformative.
There's no way a person could deduce from the description and illustration that a Maranta is what's being offered, unless one knew about Marantas first.

The word "mystifying," in this context, gives me a sharp, stabbing pain behind my left eye. Or at least it did until I read the definition of "mystify," which is:
1. to perplex (a person) by playing upon the person's credulity; bewilder purposely. 2. to involve in mystery or obscurity.
These are, of course, exactly the things being done by the catalog.

(It's not a mystery, by the way. We know what's going on. As mentioned in the profile for Maranta leuconeura, the raising and lowering of the leaves are accomplished by the plant pumping water into, then out of, specialized structures at the base of the petioles, in response to changes in the amount or color of the light. I mean, there's no shame in being mystified when you first hear about it, but if you let it stop there. . . .)

"In the solitude of evening" is also problematic, if you try to figure out what it means. The plant will only raise its leaves if there are no people nearby? Evenings are solitary? I suppose that's technically true, in the sense that you never have more than one evening happening simultaneously -- there are no gangs of evenings roaming the streets of Los Angeles or anything -- but "solitude" is meaningless in this context. Which I could forgive if it were evocative or poetic, but it's the sort of cliche that belongs in angsty 14-year-olds' poetry and Nine Inch Nails lyrics (But I repeat myself!), not in gardening catalogs.

"Thrives anywhere" is of course not true for any plant, which sort of calls into question "you'll receive strong, well-established plants" as well.

And then there's the weirdness of the little girl praying to the plant. I mean, I know that it's not supposed to be the girl praying to the plant. It's supposed to be a rebus. Prayer + plant = Prayer plant. But still. It's a little girl praying to a plant.

"Screw your 'Jesus,' mother! This Ficus is my god now!"

All of which, taken together, raises the question: why? It's not like it's hard to get a picture of a plant, in these days of digital photography. I could see it, maybe, if this were a case where the original illustration's just getting copied over from year to year, but you would think that at some point, someone would have pointed out that this isn't a very accurate picture of the product, and that better illustrations would be easily and cheaply available. Like, maybe a customer might have said something about expecting a plant with child-head-sized leaves and not getting one. It just seems dumb, to misrepresent your product like this. Hell, it's not even an attractive picture of the plant in question. It'd be understandable (if not forgivable) if it were an unrealistic illustration that made the plant look better than it is. But, y'know, this is a Maranta:

Tell me that isn't a better-looking plant than Burgess' green-brown Aphelandra-tobacco thing.

This picture makes me even more wary of ordering anything from Burgess than I would have been anyway. Sure, the blue spruce looks blue (practically cobalt, actually -- subtlety, thy name is not Burgess Seed and Plant Co.), but how do I know what color it really is, if they're going to pull crap like this with the prayer plant?

And then I saw their "3-in-1 angel trumpet," which looked . . . troubling, in a way I couldn't quite pin down. All I could tell was, some amateurish photo manipulation had happened, but it wasn't clear exactly what. So I took pictures of the catalog, uploaded one to the computer to use for this blog post, and was cropping and adjusting the color and all that when I figured out how I knew it was photoshopped.

Not only is it really unrealistic that a plant like this could produce three different colors of blooms, evenly distributed, all over the plant (it's surely got to be grafted, right? So there's a white branch, and a yellow branch, and a peach branch, but not white, yellow, and peach flowers arising from any one particular branch. Either that or the flowers change color with age, which is probably a much less dramatic color change than peach to yellow to white), and not only are the flowers never overlapped by leaves, yet often obscured by one another, but many of the flowers are exact copies of one other.

You'll probably have to open this in a separate window to see that they're duplicated. I've helpfully circled some sets of copies. In the gray-circled and pink-circled sets, they've tried to disguise the copying by making some of them mirror images.

Deception is bad enough, but this is incredibly lazy deception.

So, in conclusion: not if you were the last plant-related business on earth, Burgess. Not if you were the last plant-related business on earth.


Anonymous said...

great post!

Bom said...

I was going to say that they have the same images as Further checking shows that must have gotten their angel tree and prayer plant pictures from Burgess.

Whatever happened to truth in advertising?

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately this sort of hokey stuff is all too common. I grit my teeth (actually in respect to my dentition I now toss the known offenders straight into the recycling bin without a glance). But this leads me to a topic that I've hoped you might consider at some time, and that's the ethics of the plant-selling industry in general. From wholesaler/grower to local garden centers, there seems to be a lot of stuff that barely passes the sniff test. Well - amend that - make it does not pass.


Anonymous said...

If you want another example of truth in advertising, check out this url. The guy in the blue shirt is my brother. The little boy in the picture he is holding is NOT, although that's the suggestion. :-) Gave my whole family a laugh and he earned $900 for two days of work!

Brandon said...

Ha! You really let 'em have it. I hate deceptive advertising. Truth makes the world go 'round, people.

Paul said...

I've seen that ignominous, counterfeit Brugmansia in other catalogs, and remember feeling like Annie Wilkes afterwards...that's not how they work AT ALL!! They do the same w/ those "3-in-1" apple trees and rose of Sharon.

As far as hokey-dopey nomenclature goes, I'm most disgusted with Michigan Bulb Co. They refuse to use anything resembling a proper name (It's Mandevilla, not "peruvian jasmine"!) in most cases, but arbitrarily throw one in, like tuberose. Maybe they're catering to a very specific, geriatric demographic, but that's a dismal business model.

Liza said...

What is it about the drawing that makes me want to bitch slap that little girl?

mr_subjunctive said...


Well, I'm not sure there ever was truth in advertising, so it may be jumping the gun to ask what happened to it.


I'm not sure I know enough about it to be able to write about the industry in general. I have written posts that touch on the less-savory aspects I'm personally acquainted with.

Kenneth Moore said...

Mr S, both of these images show up in a ton of different catalogs. I've seen a bunch of crazy stuff in some of them--I've been meaning to do a similar post, but heck, I can barely keep up with plant care, let alone side projects. :P Besides, I've *also* been meaning to do a post about what catalogs I like, and why, for over a year now. I wonder whether Burgess has any redeeming qualities? And whether there's a disclaimer anywhere that says "product images and product names may not resemble actual product at all."

Anonymous said...

It's often said that all publicity is good publicity. So, perverse as it sounds, putting this company in the pillory is simply helping them drum up more business.

Whenever I see this kind of sloppy deceptive advertising, I can't help wondering if they put as little effort into their customer service.

But that's what Garden Watchdog is for.


Derek said...

So you mean that the little girl doesn't come with the plant? Cause I'm totally canceling my order now.


Jenn said...

They've been using images like that for at least a decade if not longer. Always thought they were a bit shady, like MI bulb - which pulls the same sort of stunts (might be the same company)

Pat said...

With the aid of the internet Burgess have added more insults to the injuries already hilariously described from their catalogue.

Hardiness Zone: All

I am so stunned I almost can't make a comment about that. Really thrives anywhere, we ship to Northern Greenland for you outdoor gardeners who want a bit of tropical colour for a shady spot in your glacier garden.

Plant Height 8-10"

making the yaksha-worshipping girl in the picture about the same height, perhaps an inch or two taller.

They have improved the text:
See this rare plant fold its leaves as if in prayer! The Mystifying Prayer Plant closes up every night and opens every morning! This remarkable and beautiful plant that, in the solitude of evening, seems to pray will enthrall you. Every evening it folds its leaves like hands in prayer and every morning it spreads them wide again. The Mystifying Prayer Plant leaves are large, variegated and a blend of several lovely shades of green. Thrives anywhere! You'll receive strong, well-established plants.

You see, mr_s, it is "rare", which puts the kibosh on your identification of it as Maranta leuconeura which if it got any more common would have to wear a tracksuit and a gold chain. I much prefer the name Arrowroot.

The Brugmansia is even more hilarious. Get the expanded pictures for the "Angel Trumpet, 3-N-1" (groovy internet naming, note) and the "Angel Trumpet, White" up in separate tabs then flick between them. Not only do pink and yellow flowers appear and disappear but the lawn flickers between grass-green and astroturf.

No mention of the need to wear protection during and wash carefully after pruning but, hey, it is deer resistant.

Tom said...

Oye. If you look at the 3-N-1 it also has three trunks so it's not like they even try to make it look's just three plants in a pot.

Anonymous said...

they need to go fuck themselves square in their own filthy shit-holes.

If I wanted a mystifying prayer plant I would get some god damned peyote.

Owen said...

Good post, made me laugh...but the Nine Inch Nails comment was a bit uncalled for >:(

Anonymous said...

Amazing post! Ah I love it when I find those kind of things, let`s call them very lousy marketing skills.
And the ILLUSTRATION of a plant, WITH a girl, plain wrong and lost of precious space? What business uses lousy 70's illustrations AND photoshopped pictures?
Epic fail. Epic funny post to read!

Anonymous said...

I'm getting back to this post because today I stumbled upon this article :

About a double flowered Brugmansia breeding program that succeeded at producing a plant with both flowers of a different color from the same inflorescence.. And I immediately thought about your post. Probably the closest we can get to the phony picture in the catalog. They are still at the development phase though, but they say it should be available by 2013. Anyways it's quite funny that both your post and this article were published online on March 3th.

Pat said...

Zeï, that is a fascinating report. Flowers 2.5 foot long? I have seen big ones but none quite like that.

Andy said...

I get catalogs like that every year, and, without fail, they come up with crazy negative reviews on the Dave's Garden Watchdog site.


100 positive, 41 neutral, 234 negative.

234 negative.


Flyingboye said...

that maranta.. has lemon ribs... or white? i found one in a store... with white ribs and all green... there was only one hiding at back and bottom shelf...and i was elated to find it!

mr_subjunctive said...


I don't have the plant anymore, so I'm not sure. The appearance can vary a bit too, depending on the conditions in which the leaf developed.