Mr. Reginald Farrer's Explorations In China (part 2) by Farrer

Gardeners' Chronicle p.213, September 26, 1914


In mid-April the Plums and Apricots are in full bloom and the hillsides are nebulous with soft blurs of white or pink. But for a long way down towards the rising ranges rich loess soil still prevails, with the result that the hills are tilled almost to their tops by the economical Chinese, who terrace little plots out from even the most forbidding slopes or pinnacles. There is small hope here of any new sensational beauty, and the great charm of the road lies in the clean, mud-built villages that nestle at intervals along the riversides, embowered in Willow and Lombardy Poplar, and set in a circumambient haze of Plum and Apricot blossom that seems almost luminous in its contrast with the young green of the Poplars. Here, too, are little garden closes, containing special treasures in the way of flowering shrub or tree. Especially charming are the slender-growing forms of Prunus, making roundheaded masses of 4 or 5 feet high, with delicate branches weeping far and wide beneath the weight of their profuse constellations of flower. But the greatest gem of all is a Viburnum not of the kind that is now so diligently advertised and praised, presenting usually the rusty appearance of a pew-opener in distressed circumstances, but a miracle of prodigal flower in corymbs like some small and blushing rosy Lilac, diffusing far and wide the most intoxicating scent of Heliotrope. This delicious plant was soon discovered wild, in scanty coppices by the roadside as it wound through the hills, and with it a Daphne, probably D. retusa, small mounds and balls of blossom, which, at first seeming scentless, are long developed the typical heavy and acrid sweetness of the race.

By now the hills were wilder, tipped with Pines and sometimes clothed in copses where wild pheasants clucked. On these the Daphne was so abundant as to tinge the slopes, and all the woodland was so dense with seven-and-sixpences that, as each hideous Rubus tore one's legs and Clematis encumbered them, one wished that they were far away in England, glutting the zeal of enthusiasts, instead of thus wasting their ugliness on the desert hills of China. Lurking among these was a dainty Epimedium, frail and snowy, a golden, single-flowered little Cremanthodium, a Gerbera like an inferior dead-white Bellis perennis, and that glorious Lithospermum that I saw turning the earth to sky in Japan.

But copses in these hills are the exception rather than the rule : soon we were on open slopes again, climbing over tilled terraces, beneath mountain masses dark and austere as the Langdales above Grasmere. Here it was that, on high declivities to which cultivation had not reached, another treasure leapt to view, growing abundant in low sheets and cushions in the hard, hot loess soil at considerable elevations. This new delight may be best pictured as a golden-citron Daphne or Jasmine, forming blots and blotches of luminous colour as brilliant yet gentle as that of Douglasia Vitaliana, which its closely-matted habit and profusion of blossom no less help to recall. It is, of course, neither Jasmine nor Daphne; its neat habit and rare loveliness are the only certain points of its character as yet. Nor were its carpets of bland, lemony stars in little loose heads without their match, for its slopes were shared by a brilliant Gentian of, I fear, annual persuasion. This grows in neat, dwarf tuffets, almost suggestive of G. pyrenaica,- the flowers, too, are not unlike— wider open, though, in flaring shades of amethyst, violet and sapphire, with the inter-lobar folds (as often happens in Asiatic Gentians) so amply developed as to make the flower's face like a ten-pointed star.

From this point we descended towards a river running like a thread of silver among its shingles far beneath our feet, in a deep valley of ranges wild and rugged. All over Kansu, by the highway sides and in every open waste place, grows Edelweiss as common as Filago and nearly as ugly ; but on this descent there was a point, in a small grave copse, where its crowded clumps of grey flannel made a soft effect amid the dazzling firmament of the Lithospermum.

Mounting again, on the other side of the river, we climb more steeply and higher than before and found a fresh succession of delights. In the first place were wide, flowering masses of Iris tectorum (our first sight of it in flower, though it had been abundant in the wild gorges of the hills behind us, above watercourses that flowed over strata so artificial as to suggest cement-built rock gardens and cascades of the most imposing order ; and above this the mounded, snowy masses of Rosa Banksiae were lavishing their scent, which to me is the most intoxicatingly delicious of all fragrances, hovering, as it does, on the edge of the intolerable. Still higher, and the scrub tailed away into open moorland, now all blue with the uncounted millions of a small ensata Iris[sic now I. lactea]. At one point, indeed, clumped densely in the sward round a little farm, they made a crazy effect, as if one were in a West-moreland orchard, and all the Daffodils in their colonies had gone blue.

After this there were more passes, and more valleys, with all their usual adornments, and more besides. At one point occurred a hanging copse, impending over a flat place in the river bed, where, at the junction of streams, the people come to market from far and near. This coppice rustled with white points in the wind; from afar one wondered whether the sheen were not that of ruffled Poplar tips. It was only at the eleventh hour, running madly up, that one saw the tossing snow to be all Exochorda, flowering from the end of every shoot. Yet even Exochorda must yield to Dipelta. Dipelta helps to build the coppice in all these parts; it grows with grace inimitable, and its slender sprays are- bowed beneath the weight of innumerable pearl-white blossoms, like sainted Weigelas freckled in the throat with gold, and each dainty, long-tubed bell escaping from a two-fold bag suffused with red. No shrub can beat Dipelta for beauty and elegance and charm; it is sweetly scented, too, and so abundant and so universal that it rouses the highest hopes of its adaptability to English gardens. One evening I went up a long wooded slope clothed in its heavy-laden boughs, and not even those entangling branches could cloy one's eyes with its elfin loveliness. I was climbing after a blushing blotch far up in the woodland ; this proved a deeply rosy Pyrus of bright charm, and on the way I had my fill of Epimedium, and also found a Cypripedium of the calceolus type, but so immature that I could discern little more of it but that one stem was bearing three buds which on dissection appeared likely to be of Calceolus design. As I descended through the tangle I saw afar, upon an opposite slope, a number of bright, white blobs, so large and definite even in the distance that it was impossible to believe them flowers, but they must surely be fragments of wool or white paper lodged amid the brake. However, to slip no chance I waded through the surf of thorns from hill to hill. Nor did I need near approach to discover what it was that I was hunting, for there, balancing rarely amid the brushwood, shone out at me the huge expanded goblets of Paeonia Moutan, refulgent as pure snow and fragrant as heavenly Roses. It grew tall and thin and stately, each plant with two or three thin, upstanding wands tipped by the swaying burden of a single upright bloom with heart of gold, each stainless petal flamed at the base with a clean and definite feathered blotch of maroon. All over these ranges, indeed, the type of P. Moutan is pure and snowy ; in others it is red or magenta. Greater luck to thi6 type, then ; it is one of the most sensational of glories and for ever makes one's heart go thump anew each time one sights its wide-frilled chalices of whiteness dotting the scrub or distant sward, more rarely, indeed, but with the same effect as its cousin Anemone alpina on the upper turf of Mont Cenis. Reginald Farrer.

"The first article by Mr. Farrer was published in the Issue for September 12.

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

-- BobPries - 2014-07-09
Topic revision: r2 - 09 Jul 2014, BobPries
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