Too good to be true?

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This time of the year subtle warnings come from professionals reminding the consumer to be skeptical of mail order catalogues or advertisements that claim “new horticultural breakthroughs”, otherwise outrages claims or mass quantities of things for bargain basement prices.  There are legitimate “horticultural breakthroughs” but usually different terminology is used and you’ll find them at your local stores.   Selections, hybrids and cultivars that have been tested by professional nurseryman are introduced each year that offer better bloom, vigor, cold or heat hardiness and taste.  

Basically, don’t believe outrageous claims.  The coupon circulars that come in the mail or nestled in the daily newspaper are full of weird products like painted plates, knitted slippers, wildlife figures and “must-have” plants.  This time of the year these circulars prey on the anticipation of spring. Giant tomatoes, one tree with five different fruits and a tree that grows three feet in a week share space with the dollar off coupons.  And, be skeptical of the sensational claims about the plants that scam the most people:  the giant tomato tree, the royal paulownia, the five in one fruit tree and bargain bulbs for dirt cheap.  

Chinese empress tree
The giant tomato tree takes the prize for the worst “sucker plant”.  Sure, we all love tomatoes but this tree isn’t even a tomato. The tomato tree is a sub-tropical perennial shrub known botanically as Cyphomandra betaceae.  As a perennial it blooms and sets fruit 2 years after seedling stage; the fruit looks like clusters of small pinkish eggplant and the taste is about the same. The fruit of the tomato tree is described as resinous (in smell and taste), much like that of a mild or under ripe tomato. The outer skin is tough and unpleasant in flavor; the outer flesh is bland; the flesh just around the seeds is considered the best part.  The fruit is seedy and the seeds are larger than a true tomato.  It sounds like there isn’t a whole lot to the tomato that is tasty.

The royal paulownia, or the Chinese empress tree, also fools many impatient gardeners with its claims of speedy growth.  The claim is true, the paulownia does grow fast, but in its haste it looks like a weedy tree with weak spindly branches and an overall awkward appearance.  The foxglove-like blooms are indeed beautiful but around here it is not reliable because the buds swell early and are often nipped back by a frost or freeze.  
The paulownia does have value as a managed timber tree, in mining reclamation or in a diverse planting where there is acreage but for the average homeowner a paulownia in the front yard will do very little but cause maintenance issues for you in the future.  There are better, relatively fast-growing trees that will serve the greater good in your front yard.

Shop local
Last but not least, the five in one fruit tree which claims “an avalanche of luscious fruit” and that it “smothers itself” with bushels of fruit all summer long.  This tree has five different fruit trees grafted onto one root stock.  Certain varieties are more vigorous than others so you have a pruning nightmare. Self-pollinating varieties are typically chosen but you will get poor production without cross pollination.  Reviews have suggested, too, that the tree often arrives at your door in poor shape, or dead.
The website forum for gardeners called DavesGraden has a great resource if you are considering ordering from a catalogue that you have not used before: www.gardenwatchdog.com. A long list of scathing comments seemed to target the two names that are associated with the plants offered through the circulars:  The Michigan Bulb Company and Gardener’s Choice.  Plants shipped from Michigan Bulb where inferior quality, poorly packaged, nearly dead, and sent at odd times throughout the spring and early summer. Gardener’s Choice seems to be reliable in processing your credit card but unreliable in delivering the product.  

I suppose the bottom line is this: you get what you pay for and that outrageous claims are simply that.  You can find what you need, what will do well in Kentuckiana and the expertise and customer service we all desire right in your own backyard, so shop locally not through the coupon circulars.
(Jeneen Wiche is an avid gardener from Shelbyville. She can be reached at Jwiche@shelbybb.net. or at  www.SwallowRailFarm.com)