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.