Reginald Farrer

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Reginald Farrer was a great plantsman, explorer and writer. His book: In a Yorkshire Garden is a particular favourite of mine. I love Farrer’s way with words. Vita Sackville West said he was ‘half poet, half botanist’. He does sometimes indulge himself with purple passages and long digressions but I love his style and his eccentricity. He was born with a cleft palate and he was small and ugly; perhaps because of this he had a grudge against the world.  He wanted to be a great fiction writer but met with no success with this. His great talent was for garden writing.

As we are all complaining about our endless rain this winter, it is interesting to learn what Farrer thought about the cold months. He hated winter. I love his petulant description of dark, cold, winter days.  He says: ‘One begins to feel that one’s optic nerves are wasting and withering for lack of daylight, and that, in a little while, one will have dwindled into a white-eyed troglodyte’.

He writes about his alpines: ‘woolly children of the highest alps make haste to depart to their long home; sodden and putrid little heaps of brown decay’.

He has a wonderful description of the way primulas often heave themselves out of the soil to expose their roots. ‘The Primulas pull first one foot out of the ground and then another, as if they meant to run away up to the fells.  But then, having achieved so much, their strength or their courage fails them, and they lie drunkenly about on the soaking earth, with their long, white tentacles waving in the air or trailing uselessly across the soil’. I just love this image of primroses pulling themselves out of the soil in order to take off up the hill.

He looks round the garden and finds nothing to cheer him. The shrubs ‘drip incessant tears’ and he takes no pleasure in his roses. ‘And on the dead rose-bushes hang a thousand buds like withered moths’.  I cannot look at my roses in winter without seeing this image of withered moths.

After this depressing picture of his winter garden he tells us that in January he takes refuge in his orchid house and spends his time hunting woodlice.  He doesn’t even seem to find much pleasure in his winter aconites although he concedes that they are a promise of things to come. He says: ‘I think his colour is almost dreadful, an acrid, malevolent yellow verging towards green and dully expressive of the plant’s poisonous properties.’ How venomous he is about this lovely little flower which gives most of us so much pleasure, (all right, it might be poisonous but who on earth is going to go into the garden and eat their aconites?)

He then goes on to complain about snowdrops: ‘The snowdrop gives me chilblains, only to look at it…. Was there ever such an icy, inhuman, bloodless flower, crystallised winter in three gleaming petals and a green-flecked cup?‘  This sounds like Farrer having a tantrum. He then concedes he does love one snowdrop: Galanthus poculiformis. He loves it only because it has no green marks. Apparently, the pure white one isn’t so icily inhuman; it’s those green spotted ones that offend.

As if January isn’t bad enough with acrid aconites and snowdrops giving him chilblains, we then find that: ‘February is wailing round our ears, and there is nothing in the garden but death’.

So as February didn’t please him either he took himself off to Cornwall to wait for spring.

I think most of us feel we can sympathise with Farrer’s depression at the end of a long winter. In our case this year it is the endless rain and mud that is depressing. I don’t think any of us take against our lovely winter flowers the way that he did though.

When he is not moaning about winter, Farrer’s descriptions of the plants he loves are lyrical. His knowledge is encyclopaedic. As well as being a great gardener he was an intrepid plant collector. His travels included visits to Japan, Tibet, China and Burma where he died at the young age of forty.

If you would like to learn more about this great plantsman I recommend Nicola Shulman’s excellent biography: A Rage for Rock Gardening: The Story of Reginald Farrer, Gardener, Writer and Plant Collector. It is quite a slim volume but it is very entertaining and informative about this troubled soul who discovered so many of our well-loved plants.

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20 Responses to Reginald Farrer

  1. Kris P says:

    I’m not sure this is the best book to read when you’re in the midst of winter doldrums but Mr. Farrer certainly seems to be an interesting character. I hope you’ve been saved the flooding I’ve heard is plaguing the London area!

    • Chloris says:

      His book is not all about winter misery, I just quoted that bit because it seemed appropriate to the season. This endless wet weather is all over Europe.
      The biography is really interesting.

  2. Flighty says:

    A most enjoyable, and informative, post. I did a double take when I looked at his picture as I used to know someone who looked just like that but without a moustache. xx

  3. Chloris says:

    Thank you Flighty. I suppose the big moustache was to hide the hair lip.

  4. Annette says:

    Farrer seems to have had a delicious sense of humour too, Chloris. Thanks for this informative post, I shall put him on my list. Just checked my face in the mirror and was relieved that I’m not quite a white-eyed troglodyte yet but I long for spring and the soil to dry up so that walking through the garden turns into a pleasure not a burden.

  5. Helen Johnstone says:

    Another book to add to my list, sounds like a good read

  6. Chloris says:

    Yes do look out for the biography, it is really interesting.

  7. Cathy says:

    I was just wondering what his blog posts might be like if he was still around today to start a blog….. 😉 he certainly has a great way with words, doesn’t he? It’s great to have all these recommendations of books – I copy them onto the virtual post-it notes on my desktop to remind me. Thanks Chloris.

    • Chloris says:

      I hope you enjoy reading Farrer as much as I do. If he wrote a blog, I would certainly be a follower. I haven’t yet read his accounts of his plant hunting trips but I intend to.

  8. Anna says:

    Now that sounds like my sort of book – I have read about Farrer but not anything by him so will have to try to remedy that. He doesn’t look ugly to my eyes 🙂

  9. Chloris says:

    No, that fine moustache hid his cleft lip. Have you read the Shulman biography? It is worth seeking out.

  10. What a carry on. I think I would have got rather cross with him if he was mooning around my garden in that frame of mind. That said he sounds like he was a really interesting man who clearly had a lovely command of the English language. I shall seek out a copy to read for myself. Thanks Chloris. D

  11. Chloris says:

    He was actually still living with his parents who he resented. He was a difficult man but as gardeners we owe him a lot. The Shulman biography is fascinating.

  12. Julie says:

    I can sympathise with his honest winter temper, he sounds a great character. It is only recently that I have started to read more historical gardening books and find them to be a lot more interesting than the endless versions of what plant where, I shall look out for this one.

    • Chloris says:

      I agree with you, this is the sort of book I love. Modern garden writers don’t seem to write like this anymore. It’s so often boring lists of plants. And pretty pictures.

  13. bittster says:

    I think I would enjoy his grumpy discourse on winter, he does have a way with words, but I wouldn’t jump on the next steamer to China and Tibet with him. I’m afraid he’d be pushed into the first steep ravine we came across…. unless his miserable outlook is confined to winter, but I doubt it and I can’t see him as a pleasant travel mate.
    I’ll have to keep an eye out for this book though!

  14. Chloris says:

    You are quite right he wasn’t a pleasant travel mate. He quarrelled violently with EHM Cox who who was with him on his travels in Burma. He ended up dying alone in the mountains of Upper Burma. He was a fearless traveller though. He has been called The Indiana Jones of the plant world.

  15. Alain says:

    I thought the funniest thing about Farrer was that his father gave him money to run as a candidate in an election and he spent the whole lot on plants!!!

  16. Chloris says:

    That sounds so typical of Farrer. He behaved like a rebellious teenager right up until his death at 40.

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