(1914) Mr. Farrer's Explorations In China by Farrer

Gardeners' Chronicle p.185, September 12, 1914


[We publish below the first of a series of articles which Mr. Reginald Farrer is sending to us from the scene of his explorations. Mr. Farrer left England early this year for the purpose of collecting plants in Western China and Thibet. His descriptive, illustrated articles which will appear periodically in these pages will keep our readers informed of his experiences and adventures in the wild countries through which he is now journeying. — Eds.]


Never till now did I properly appreciate the prices asked for Chinese plants, which have always appeared to me preposterously high. But to-day, being about halfway towards our mountains after more than a month of hard tracking, I feel that a Chinese variety of Shepherd's Purse may very properly be priced at a guinea. My precious herb prevails here, indeed, as at home, yet rouses no tender emotions. So far the going has been monotonous in the extreme, over vast and interminable plains of loess, just beginning to be green with corn, and golden with great fragrant streaks of mustard, and now, near the villages, a rosy cloud of Peach trees in full blossom. We have at last left behind us the perilous province of Shensi, a-simmer for new rebellions and horrors of all kinds, and have come out upon the firmer ground of Mohammedan Kansu.

The loess country was very wintry still, and its most striking flower a Dicranostigma, probably the same thing which is still sometimes called Chelidonium Franchetianum. Its rosettes of glaucous and velvety foliage, nobly feathered in rounded lobes, are very handsome in the faces of the mud cliffs ; and, as we passed, the tall showers of brilliant yellow Celandines were beginning to open. More mysterious, but even more charming, and less showy, was a rather rare plant, now long since left behind. From a tuft of very fine glaucous leafage, delicate and ferny, rose bare frail scapes of some 3 or 4 inches, each carrying four or five flowers in an umbel, each on a long fine pedicel. The three outer segments of pale gold were ample, and tucked into a point after the fashion of some Hypecoum, while three inner ones, very narrow and bi-lobed, formed a tube about the trifid stigma. Though wholly dissimilar, the general effect of the mass was that of a yellow Erodium. These, too, occurred by the roadsides, in varying shades of lilac, rose and purple, as were also countless little dainty Oxytropids. Put of all purples the heartiest is afforded by a most delightful tufted Violet, springing in small fountains of colour along the sunlit banks. It is probably V. Patrinii, and may be no better than V. hirta on a Dorset down; yet here it has a rich fascination, so pretty and delicate and brilliant in its varying shades of purple, lavender or amethyst, twinkling above its neat tuft of narrow leaves with abundant flowers of varying amplitude and outline. There is another species, too, of the claw-leaved group, with blossoms usually of much richer violet, with a pointed lip heavily freaked with gold; both these are scentless. In damper places a great golden-flowered Potentilla runs about, and has a very close resemblance to P. ambigua; on drier banks the charming little annual Androsace Engleri achieves an almost perfect imitation of A. carnea. And now from the sere downs burst single violet goblets of an Anemone that recalls A. Pulsatilla on the Devil's Dyke, but is clearly of closer kinship to A. Halleri and imperial A. sinensis. All the roadsides are carpeted with hassocky tufts of a little Iris that never seems to flower oyer half the country, though very occasionally one comes upon isolated stretches of it where the low, wide cushions of broadish foliage are thickly set with seed capsules.

More generous is I. graminea, which abounds in the sere fine herbage of high, hot downs, and now enriches their brown expanse with here and there a dainty spidery cup of amethystine blue, suggesting a Crocus torn in strips, or I. reticulata diminished and made anaemic.

For the last three or four days our feet have been set on ways more interesting and full of promise — over the mountain passes that make the natural boundary between Kansu and Shensi. These are often clothed densely in coppice of all sorts, but mainly Lilac, shrubby Spiraeas of the Lindleyana group, Rosa rubus, Staphylea, and such-like precious garnishes of our shrubberies, here occurring in a dense woodland tangle. Here and there among these stand up rare specimens of the great Red Birch, a noble tree, stiff and angular and stalwart and gnarled, not in the least suggesting a Birch, but rather some bewitched and ancient Plane. The undergrowth of the hills, whether bare or wooded, is a mass of Anemone japonica, whose dead stems, still silvered with fluff, rise 3 feet or so among the herbage. On the ground ramps a most charming Adiantum — at one point I noticed a pale Anemone of nemorosa blood, and in another a Corydalis, with short spires of delicate sky-blue. And Asplenium trichomanes supplied a tender touch beyond the power of Shepherd's Purse.

Another pass provided different matter. It was barer than the last, and of a north-country aspect, dark with promising-looking relics of sedge and herbage, more rich in suggestion than the thin film of vegetation that clothes the loess. On its sunnier banks the purple Anemone was breaking gloriously, and among the patches of coppice I saw a large and a small Polygonatum still lingering in dead foliage, though the new shoots were hardly visible. Towards the summit, however, a new wonder came into view, growing only on the cooler, shady side of the glen, and in a rich free soil, moist and dark, among buried screes of rock. This was a Hellebore of the Lent-Rose group — such a wonder of delicate charm that, even if it prove of " no commercial value " (in that final condemnation of the great-minded), will probably in the judgment of the discerning be held amply to justify the interest taken by the R.H.S. in my journey. So I have special hopes of seeing this lovely plant a-blow one day at Wisley. It may be imagined as a much-magnified Wood-Anemone, with three or four dainty flowers of pearly-white or pink spraying abroad from the one stem, each on a fine and dainty pedicel of its own, and with the pointed flower-segments of the fairy-like crimpled silk of Anemone nemorosa, instead of the rather fat and stolid consistency which usually prevails among the Hellebores. It has a grace, indeed, and charm of habit and colour and port which seem at present, to my enthusiastic eye, to set it apart in the race. But then I have not here for comparison the huger, stouter and showier hybrids in the group that are nowadays so freely raised and grown. Now we have descended for the moment from the mountains before sallying forth into others. In the loess hill around, Plagiospermum sinense is abundant — a pleasant, small, thorny bush of emerald-green, strangely suggestive of a Berberis, with straight sprays laden with a fluff of' white or -creamy flowers. Its red berries were once mistaken for those of Crataegus pyracantha (!) and condignly neglected accordingly. Reginald Farrer, Kantu, -April 12, 1914.

For more information on historic Irises visit the Historic Iris Preservation Society at

-- BobPries - 2014-07-09
Topic revision: r1 - 09 Jul 2014, BobPries
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