The Prince of Rock Gardeners [Reginald Farrer], by Nicholas=

Harry Dewey HTD10 at COLUMBIA.EDU
Tue Sep 17 20:53:59 CEST 2002


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"The Prince of Rock Gardeners", one of the most interesting
things I've read in a long time, is one of those rare essays whose
factual interest is enormously enhanced by the author's writing style.

Reprinted with permission of (and thanks to) the author from The
Mason-Dixon Line; Newsletter of the Mason Dixon Chapter [of] the North
American Rock Garden Society, Sept.-Oct. 2002 [issue].

The Prince of Rock Gardeners
By Nicholas Klise

Reginald  Farrer (fair'-er) is a character every rock gardener should
know.  He was an Edwardian patrician whose enthusiasm for rock gardening
was such that he devoted his life to it and he ultimately died while in
pursuit of garden plants.

He was born in 1880 to a well-to-do politician (Liberal) and a very good
looking mother who was an avid amateur horticulturist.  The family
estate, Ingleborough House, was in the village of Chapham near the west
coast of England, north of Liverpool and Lancaster, near the western
edge of the county of North Yorkshire.  This area is stony and the
village sits on the lower slopes of a low mountain, called 'The
Ingleborough', and this aspect combined with the quaint stone
architecture give the area a certain alpine quality.  His parents had a
rock garden to grow all the new plants that were being introduced into
England at the time, and it was here that the child learned the
fundamentals of rock gardening.  By the time he was fourteen he had
mastered these fundamentals to such a degree that he had the entire rock
garden rebuilt under his direction - an auspicious precocity for a man
destined to introduce so many rock plants himself.  A few years later he
discovered his first important plant find, Arenaria gothica.  It had
never before been located in Great Britain.

Farrer had one noteworthy physical flaw.  He was born with a deformed
mouth - a cleft palate and hare lip.  He also had an unattractive timbre
to his voice.  He was short in stature.  He had to suffer through
childhood with the hare lip unmasked, but as soon as he was sent to
Oxford he grew a mustache that somewhat camouflaged the lip.  The effect
of his unfortunate voice was mitigated by the intelligence and wit of
his conversation, in which he probably overcompensated to allay the
prejudice society had at that time to anyone they deemed deformed.  He
arrayed himself in the styles of the most fashionable gentlemen and
consequently was accepted by his social milieu.

After graduation from Oxford he made excursions to continental Europe
for plant collecting.  He visited all parts of the Alps, but made many
visits to the Dolomites, the mountains between Austria and Northern
Italy.  He wrote a travel book called The Dolomites when he was thirty
three.  Sometime he went to the Alps with E. A. Bowles who shared his
enthusiasm for alpine plants and who was to become an authority on
alpine bulbs.

Farrer, being theoretically wealthy--he was dependent on allowances from
his father--did not need to be gainfully employed or have any sort of
marketable skills.  He thought of himself as a writer of fiction, a
proper calling for someone of his class and milieu.  He expanded his
knowledge in every direction as a dilettante and did not have to endure,
as so many plant hunters did, a long apprenticeship at a nursery or a
botanic garden.  He had a deep and abiding interest in plants and their
cultivation which inspired a self imposed discipline to the learning of
Botany.  This knowledge, combined with his precocious rock gardening,
resulted in his writing My Rock Garden, a kind of premature
autobiography, when he was only in his twenties.  In it he documents the
fact that he traveled extensively and visited many gardens and
specifically rock gardens.  He was conversant with Wolley Dod who Farrer
considered the premier rock gardener of the time; Dod being a man in his
seventies.  Farrer's mastery of plantsmanship was both intellectual, by
the study of Botany, and empirical, by gardening and travel and
friendship with other rock gardeners.

In 1914, when Farrer was thirty four and had exhausted the exploration
of all of the mountains of
Europe from the Pyrenees to Scotland, he and William Purdom set off for
the very remote mountains of central Asia.  Purdom was a horticulturist
from Kew who Farrer knew and with whom he got along well.  Purdom was a
godsend to Farrer, being the other side of the coin; he was modest,
handy, cool, and saintly regarding Farrer's  emotional temperament. Both
loved looking for plants.  Their destination was the Chinese province of
Kansu, at that time the western border of China.  Since China assumed
control of Tibet, it is now to the east of the Chinese province of
Tibet.  They had no guide, inadequate maps, no knowledge of the local
language, no political connections to anyone having any effect on the
populace of the hinterlands, and no psychological tether to the
Edwardian comforts they left behind.  What they did have was three young
Chinamen, several ponies; Farrer had his watercolors and his books by
Jane Austin; and both had the enthusiasm and dedication of seasoned
plant hunters.  Most importantly, the inept Farrer had Purdom.
Days--weeks--months of arduous trekking through vast landscapes of
deserts and mountains resulted in quite few discoveries, the most
noteworthy being Gentiana farreri, a totally new species of gentian with
otherworldly turquoise flowers striped on the outside with maroon pencil
lines.  Occasionally reports of the terrible events of the Great
European War reached them and they could hardly believe they were true.
Many of the collected plants were lost in the confusion of war and the
entire expedition was cut short so that Farrer could rush home and do
whatever needed doing.  His record of this first year in Asia was
published as On The Eaves Of The World and the second year as The
Rainbow Bridge.  The plants that did make it back to England were a
rose, Rosa farreri; a fragrant edelweiss, Leontopodium haplophylloides;
a silver leaved geranium, Geranium farreri, and a shrub that many of us
grow, Buddleia alternifolia.

During the war Farrer spent all of his time writing, by day at the
Ministry of Information (the only thing he could really do) and at
night, working on The English Rock Garden - an encyclopedia of
cultivated rock plants in two heavy volumes.  It remains Farrer's magnum
opus and it is not only useful but entertaining, revealing all the wry
wit of the cosmopolitan plant connoisseur.  It is still available.

As soon as the war was over, he was anxious to
get back to Asia to look for more plants.           He didn't want to go
back to the area he had explored in 1914-15; he didn't want to go to
Szechuan where Wilson was exploring; he didn't want to go to Yunnan
where Forrest was exploring; he couldn't go to Nepal because of some
political situation; so he went to upper Burma.  This time he went with
E.H.M. Cox, an inexperienced young man who later wrote The Plant
Introductions of Reginald Farrer.  So they set off for Burma in 1919.
Cox could only spend a year in the field and left Farrer alone thousands
of miles from home in a hostile and unique environment.  Farrer had
never experienced monsoon.

Farrer was not an outdoorsman.  Far from it.  He was an Edwardian fop
who begrudged walking from one spot to another.  He considered any sort
of exercise a superstition.  He hoped that some day someone would build
a railway or funicular to the top of the Matterhorn so that he could
ride up to see the alpine plants.  In My Rock Garden he says that he has
"feelings of crushed despair when I stand at something like sea-level
and gaze with craning neck up, up, up to those peaks a thousand feet or
so straight overhead =85 I am lazy =85 Therefore, it will easily be seen =how
hard a fate it is that dowered one so sedentary with a passion for
plants.  Walk I must and walk I do."  He walked up the mountains of
Europe and all over the mountains of Tibet only because of his love of
plants; he said "there are no joys =85 more restfully rapturous than the
delivery of a new lovely flower."   But the mountains of Europe and
mountains of Tibet are similar in that they are cold and dry.  All of
Burma, including the mountains of the north endure monsoon, which is
four months of continuous rain.  By this time he had alienated his
family and most of his friends, patrons and traveling companions; he
found it difficult to contemplate his fate back home in England.  Near
the end of the second monsoon, in a camp up in the sodden highlands of a
trackless wilderness, all alone except for a faithful servant, still
dreaming of finding "a new lovely flower" he became ill.  He started
coughing and had chest pains.  He stopped eating and started sipping
whiskey.  He died on October 17, 1920.

There never has been nor ever will be a character like Reginald Farrer.
He was the epitome of an English rock gardener gone completely mad over
his love for plants.  That love made him walk up mountains, endure
monsoons, and give his enduring literary output, and, finally, his life
to rock gardening.

+++++

This charming paper was accompanied in The Mason-Dixon Line by the
following note from its editor, Marika Sniscak:

Nick is reviewing a new book on Reginald Farrer.  His review will be
published in the Spring issue of the Rock Garden Quarterly.  The book is
A Rage for Rock Gardening, by Nicola Shulman, and it will be available
through the NARGS book service.  Nick has long been a student of the
life and contribution of Reginald Farrer.  He wrote the article below
over ten years ago but has not published it previously.

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