This section is from the book "The Gardener's Monthly And Horticulturist V22", by Thomas Meehan. See also: Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.
Read at the Annual Meeting of National Association of Nurserymen and Florists, held at Chicago, June 16, 1880.
The life-time experience of any man is too short not to be imposed upon by many of the hundreds of old varieties of Fruits, Flowers, or Vegetables that are sent out annually under new names. Any well-posted nurseryman can easily detect when a Bartlett Pear or a Baldwin Apple appears under a new name; or a Florist, making a specialty of Roses, knows, as when some years ago the old Solfataire Rose was sent out under the name of " Augusta " - claiming it to be hardy in every State of the Union, and sold as a great bargain at $5.00 a piece - that the venders thereof were either swindlers or entirely ignorant of the business they had embarked in; or when the confiding market gardener is induced to buy a new and superior Cabbage or Tomato Seed, at $5.00 an ounce, and finds them identical with the same varieties he can buy at half that price per pound, he has good reason to come to the conclusion, that the man from whom he purchased was either a humbug or else unfitted, from his ignorance, to engage in the business of a seedsman.
But, unfortunately, from the varied nature of these impostures, it is exceedingly difficult to mete out justice to those who, knowingly or otherwise, place such swindles on the horticultural community. For the man who grows fruit trees is as likely to know as little about roses as the man who grows roses is to know about fruit trees, and either is less likely to be posted in the merits of vegetables. So, then, if the partly experienced horticulturist may be imposed upon in such a way, how safe is the field when the swindler tries his tricks on the general public. The sharp man of the city falls as qucikly into the trap of the horticultural swindler as the veriest rustic, because his city experience of the impostures in other matters helps him nothing in this. He may not be much troubled when he sees a bootblack fall off the dock into the river - particularly if his companion plays off the heroic role, and plunges after him, to the rescue - he understands it all, for both can swim like ducks, and there was no more danger for the first than for the second, and none for either. A well-stuffed pocketbook snatched from under his feet is an incident that does not in the least arouse his cupidity, for he has long been conversant with the trick of the pocketbook dropper.
The mock auctioneer may scream himself hoarse, offering gold watches at $5.00 a piece, and it hardly elicits a smile of derision. The tears of the benighted orphan in search of his uncle does not bring a dime from his pocket, for he understands it all, together with a score more of the tricks of the great city. But, in the springtime, when his garden instincts begin to bud, and he sees in some window in Broadway flaming representations of fruits and flowers, he falls into the trap and is readv for the spoiler.
Some years ago I had occasion to act as an amateur detective in one of these Horticultural Swindling Shops, the owners of which are now known in New York as the " Blue Rose Men." When I arrived, there were at least a dozen ladies and gentlemen engaged in buying Seeds, Bulbs, and Plants, the flowers and fruits of which were represented by the pictures on the walls: for example, Asparagus was shown as having shoots as thick as a broom handle, the seeds of which were selling rapidly at one cent a piece, warranted to produce a crop in three months from time of sowing; an old lady had just become the possessor of $5.00 worth, and seemed delighted with her bargain. One of the most attractive pictures on the wall was an immense colored engraving, showing a tree on which Strawberries were growing, and as big as Oranges. My gaze was attracted to a handsome plate of Blue Moss Roses, of which I modestly asked the price of the plants. The polite Frenchman (who was doing the principal selling for the concern) whisked out from beneath the table three plants representing to be Moss Roses (which, by the way, were all alike and were all our common Prairie Rose), and said, "This one he bloom only once; I tell you the truth, so I sell him for two dollar.
This one, he be the Remontant, he bloom twice - just twice - I sell him for three dollar; but this one, he be the everblooming, perpetual Blue Moss Rose, he bloom all the time, he cheap at $5.00." I quietly remarked, if it bloomed all the time why was it not blooming now?
He looked at me pityingly and said, " My dear sir, you expect too much; these Moss Rose just come over in the ship from Paris, you take him home and plant him and he bloom right away and he keep on blooming." I did not take him home, but I took the story, something in the shape it is now told, and had it published in one of the leading New York papers, and, in less than a week, the " Blue Rose Men " had pulled up stakes, but, no doubt, to pitch their camp somewhere else, and set their traps for fresh victims. The " Blue Rose Men " are very impartial in their wanderings, and rarely omit a city of any size, beginning usually in New Orleans in January, rounding northward, and ending up with Philadelphia, New York, and Boston through April and May.
These humbugs in Horticulture have their comical side. The other year in passing St. Paul's Church (Broadway), New York, an old negro had squatted on the pavement with a great bundle of plants carefully mossed up, lying alongside of him. On inquiring what they were, he said they were Rose bushes - Rose bushes having all the attributes wanted in a rose, fragrance, hardiness, and everblooming, and the price but 50 cents apiece. He had got them, he said, from the boss, and was selling them on a commission. The poor darkey was only an innocent agent; he no doubt believed he was selling rose bushes, but the Boss, whoever he might be, undoubtedly knew better, for the plants were not roses at all, but the common cat briar - Smilax sarsaparilla - one of the worst pests of our hedgerows, but which is near enough in appearance to a rose to deceive the ordinary city merchant.
That same season at every prominent street corner could be seen the vendors of the " Alligator Plant," which some enterprising genius had cut by the wagon load from the Jersey swamps, and dealt them out to those who retailed them on the street.
The "Alligator Plant" was sold in lengths of 12 to 20 inches, from 25 to 50 cents apiece, according to its straightness and length; and by the number engaged in the business, hundreds of dollars' worth have been sold. The " Alligator Plant" is the rough triangular branches of the Sweet Gum Tree (Liquidambar styraciflua), common in most parts of the country. There is; no doubt whatever that these pieces of stick have been planted by thousands during the last i two years in the gardens in and around New York, with about as much chance of their growing as the fence pickets.
The Bulb Peddlers, a class of itinerant swindlers, deserve brief attention. They have always some wonderful novelty in bulbs; and their mode of operating to the uninitiated has a semblance of fairness, as they are liberal fellows, and frankly offer to take one-half cash on deliver}', and if the goods do not come up to representation the other half need not be paid - for example, when the Gold-banded Japan Lily was first introduced, bulbs the size of hickory nuts sold at $250 per 100. About that time one of these worthies came along with samples of a lily of fine size and appearance, with which he told he had just arrived from Japan. There was no doubt of its genuineness, for he had seen it flower. He had a large stock, and would sell at $100 per 100, but he was willing to take half that amount down and the other half when it flowered and had proved correct. It did not prove correct, and he never called. The bulb he sold was the common White Lily - Lilium Candidum - which is sold everywhere at $5 to $6 per 100. These same scamps flood the rural districts every year; with blue gladiolus, scarlet tuberoses, and other absurdities in bulbs and seeds, usually on the same terms, of one-half cash down, the other half when the rara avis has feathered out.
It is needless to say that they never try it twice on the same victim, but avail themselves of our broad continent, to seek new fields for their operations.
One of the most successful swindlers of this type was Comanche George, whose fame became national. George made his advent in New York in 1876. He was, he said, a Texas scout, and for years his rifle, revolver, and bowie knife had been the terror of the red man; but one day in his rambles on the lone Texas prairies his eyes were arrested by a flower whose wonderful coloring eclipsed the rainbow, and whose delicate perfume was wafted over the Brazos for leagues; in short, never before had eye of mortal rested on such a flower. The man of war was subdued. He betook himself to the peaceful task of gathering the seed, and turned his steps to the haunts of civilized man to distribute it. We first heard of him in Washington, where he wished to place it in the hands of the Government, and accordingly offered it to Mr. Wm. Smith, Superintendent of the Botanic Gardens there, but the Government, so Smith said, was not just then in a position to buy, and with his advice, George trimmed his sails for New York, and a market.
His success in Baltimore and Philadelphia was so great (where he started the sale of the seeds at two cents a piece), that it induced him when he struck New York, to advance the price to five cents a seed He put up at one of the best hotels, and claimed that for a month his sales of the seed of the Cockatelle - the beautiful Texas flower - reached $50.00 a day. But his success threw him off his balance; to took to fire-water, and in an unguarded moment fell into the hands of a newspaper man, who extracted from him all the facts connected with the enterprise. George never was a scout, had never been in Texas, but he had been a good customer to the various seedsmen of the different cities, where his purchases of Okra or Gumbo Seed, at about fifty cents a pound, had made nearly a dearth of the article. His victims (whose names he gave by the score, and which were duly chronicled in the newspaper article referred to) were from all classes: the enterprising florist, who secretly went into it in a wholesale way, with a view to outwit his less fortunate fellows; the grandee of Fifth Avenue, who anticipated a blaze of beauty on his lawn; the hotel man, whose window boxes were to perfume the air; all had fallen easy victims to the wiles of Comanche George. George disappeared from New York, though there is but little doubt that his business had been too successful for him to abandon it.
A newspaper paragraph, cut from a paper last week, which reads as follows, looks as if it might be the Texas Scout in a somewhat different role: " The prepossessing appearance, gentlemanly demeanor, and foreign accent of the man who called himself Carlo Corella, Botanist to the Court of Brazil, convinced a number of wealthy San Francisco ladies that he was truthful. He said to each that the failure of a remittance compelled him to sell some rare bulbs of Brazilian Lilies, which he had intended to present to Mrs. R. B. Hayes. ' The flower,' says the Chroni-de, 'was to be a great scarlet bell, with ecru ruchings on the petals, a solferino frill around the pistil, and a whole bottle of perfumery on sach stamen.' He sold about fifty almost worthless bulbs at $4.00 each".
The nurserymen present are no doubt better posted in the swindles practiced in their particular department than I am; but operators engage in different lines in different parts of the country: for example, we have never yet seen in the Eastern States anyone trying to sell an apple tree bearing blue apples as big as melons, as we were told at our meeting, at Cleveland, last year had been successfully done in Ohio and Illinois. Still we have men of fair ability in the nursery swindling line, one of whom last winter succeeded in disposing of hundreds of winter-bearing grapes, by carrying with him a few good bunches of the White Malaga of the shops.
One great detriment, not only to the florist but to the purchaser, is begotten of these swindles in horticulture. The purchaser of flowers in our markets must have his plants in bloom, because he has been at times so swindled that he must now see "what he buys. In New York, the amateur rarely buys from the grower, but from the agent or middleman who sells in the market stands or street corners. These, whether men or women, are generally entirely ignorant of the nature of plants, and most of them have no responsibility, and they rarely fail to make their wares accord to the wants of the purchaser - nearly every plant is hardy, everblooming, and has all the qualities desired by the buyer.
But now and then these swindles become a serious matter to the victim. Some years ago, a typical Englishman, who had been a green grocer in Covent Garden Market, London, found his way to New York; he at once discovered an almost entire absence of Cauliflowers in our markets, and, what few there were, were sold at prices four times that of London. He soon made up his mind to make his fortune, and, at the same time, show the Yankees something they did not know. He duly selected and prepared the ground for an acre, and one day in May he sallied into the market to procure his Cauliflower plants. This he found no difficulty in doing, for at Dutch Peggy's - in those days the headquarters for all kinds of herbs, plants and seeds - they were to be seen by the wagon load; 10,000 were procured, the quantity for his acre, and, duly planted, they began to grow apace. He had planted 1st of May. If it had been in England, his Cauliflower heads would have been ready about the 1st of July; but something was evidently wrong in the Yankee climate. His cauliflower grew through June, through July into August, only to develop into fine specimens of drumhead cabbage, then of hardly the value he had paid for them as cauliflower plants.
He got out of the business thoroughly disgusted; and, in telling his sorrowful tale to me a year afterwards, he related that when he went to expostulate with old Peggy about having blasted his prospects, before he could get a word said, she recognized him as a customer, and demanded to know if he did not again want any more early cauliflower plants.
I have said old Peggy was also a vender of seeds. It is now something over thirty years ago that a young florist presented himself before her and purchased an ounce of Mignonette. Ever alive to business, Peggy asked him if he had tried the new Red Mignonette; he protested there was no such thing, but Peggy's candid manner persuaded him, and fifty cents was invested. The seed looked familiar, and when it sprouted it looked more familiar; when it bloomed it was far too familiar, for it was Red Clover. Peggy has long since been gathered to her fathers, and I have entirely forgiven her for selling me the red mignonette.
Perhaps there is no swindling that is more extensively practiced, and which so cruelly injures the operators of the soil, as that of adulteration in fertilizers. The great mass of our farmers and gardeners are poor men, who can ill afford even to pay for the pure fertilizers necessary to grow their crops, and to pay money and high freights •on adulterations worse than useless, is hard indeed. The ignorance of those dealing in such wares does much to spread the evil. A fellow came into my office last summer with samples of a fertilizer, nicely put up in cans, which he claimed could be sold in immense quantities by the seedsmen, as it had not only the wonderful properties of invigorating and stimulating all planted crops, but that it at the same time would till all noxious weeds.
I need not say that he had waked up the wrong passenger, and that he made a rapid movement towards the door: Yet, notwithstanding the impudence and absurdity of such a claim, the scamp was enabled to prowl around the vicinity of New York for weeks, and, undoubtedly, sold to hundreds.
If he had said he had a cannon from which, when grape shot was fired into a crowd, it killed only enemies - never friends - the one claim would have been as reasonable as the other.
Another species of humbugging which, though it can hardly be called swindling, is somewhat akin to it. I refer to the men who claim to have secrets by which they can accomplish extraordinary results in propagation and culture of plants. I can well remember, in my early days, that the nursery propagator was looked upon as a sort of demi-god, possessing secrets known only to himself and a favored few, whose interest it was to continue to throw dust in the eyes of every young aspirant after knowledge. The door of the propagating house was locked and bolted, as if it were a Bastile, and even the proprietor (if he were unfortunate enough not to have practical knowledge) was allowed entrance only as a special favor; for his propagator was an autocrat, of whom he stood in awe and reverence. But, since the advent of horticultural publications in America, particularly during the past fifteen or twenty years, the "secrets" of these pretentious fellows have had such ventilation, that now nearly every operation of the greenhouse is as well understood by the tens of thousands engaged in the business, as the operation of the farm is by the farmer.
The most of these pretenders to this secret knowledge of horticulture are foreigners, though occasionally a native tries it on. Some fifteen years ago, when the grape vine mania was at its height, an old Connecticut Yankee pretended he had discovered a new method of propagating the grape, that he would impart for a consideration to the highest bidder; he issued a profusion of handbills to the trade, asking for bids, modestly requesting the receiver of the handbill to hang it up in a conspicuous place.
I sent my copy to my friend Meehan, of the Gardener's Monthly, saying that the pages of that magazine were the most conspicuous place I knew of to comply with the wish of the old gentleman. Mr. Meehan not only inserted the advertisement gratis and in the most conspicuous manner, but he did more, for he appended below the advertisement a few remarks I had ventured to make on the subject. This opened the ball, and for six months the pages of the Gardener's Monthly became the battle ground for the opinions of the discoverer and myself. But the gratuitous advertisement did not avail him much, for he and his secret soon passed into oblivion, and was heard from no more. There are no secrets in horticulture; the same laws that govern the germination of a seed, the rooting of a cutting, or the taking of a bud or graft, are the same as they were a thousand years ago, and any one pretending to have any secret knowledge in the matter is either an ignoramus or an impostor.