(1914) Reginald Farrer's Explorations in China III by Farrer
Gardeners' Chronicle p.258, October 17, 1814
MR. REGINALD FARRER'S EXPLORATIONS IN CHINA. Ill A THIRSTY LAND.
Unutterably arid are many of these Chinese ranges. On all sides their sere flanks are riven with ravines. Yet down these no water pours except during the rainy season, but for the rest of the year the corrugated hills are brown and dead, except where diligence has carved out laps of culture, or the exuding darkness of a coalfield lies over their wrinkled slopes like the shadow of a cloud. The higher ridges, indeed, offer promise of verdure sometimes, so towards these we toiled, up paths and slopes that make the Cima Tombea a valetudinarian's stroll. The greenness, however, proved only the pitiless greenness of Berberis and other small fry among scrub. Paeonies gleamed here and there in the cooler folds below, and on the warm slopes waved arching sprays of a most beautiful Rose, which begins by having thorns so thick and dense that one takes it for R. sericea pteracantha until the long ranks of blossom open and reveal five-petalled, deliciously fragrant blossoms of pure yellow, much more closely akin to those of R. xanthina. Then, but only on the very hottest and steepest of the blazing rocks below, may be seen the beginnings of a small, grey-leaved shrub which may be a Leptodermis, but which certainly, along its bowed sprays and at their end, produces heads of rose-mauve flowers of delicate colouring and thick crystalline texture, vaguely suggesting those of a Lantana. The prettiest flower, however, on those thirsty hills is a pretty little grassy-leaved white Iris, apparently of Pavonia relationship, which runs about among the coarsest herbage and produces wide galaxies of its ephemeral flowers, with the six segments so rounded and occasionally s0 equal as to make almost the effect of a small and starry Narcissus poeticus. The falls, however, have a delicate peacock eye of gold, outlined with a rim of blue that sometimes faintly suffuses all the flower. hanging on the edge of a tussock in a loose clump of blossom, it often makes one think of a white form of Gentiana verna.
But in the valleys below aridness is the rule. True, each village is an oasis of greenery, and where they can the people till and sow. Soon, however, the track leads on into country where tillage and village alike are impossible to conceive; up and down one toils over the rocky cliffs and buttresses that hedge a wide warship-coloured river, roaring swiftly along between huge walls and precipices and cloven gorges, through mountains that suggest those of Provence, but that they are higher and drier and more hopeless. To make their matter worse, the water-course gullies on high often glimmer with slabs of mica or quartz that give to those below a cruelly delusive effect of moisture, and their only flower is an Asphodeline, dim and dingy of its kind, whose sordid spikes bespatter all the vast mountain-side like a peppering of pale and ghostly sparks. But that its leaves are now developing, this spring-blooming plant exactly recalls a cousin which I found in autumn once on the Soros at Marathon.
Where the gorges widened out, however, the villages were -rich in the scarlet sparks of Pomegranate lurking amid the greenery, and Orange blossom shed its glorious cool fragrance in rivalry with the Lily-sweetnwss of Melia Azedarach, so ungraceful and gawky in its stiff boughs, each crowned beneath the Ash-like terminal tuft of leaves (the whole tree is like an Ash), with crowded loose spikes of pale or purply stars, most delicious to the nose. And in the wide shingles of the river a long-spin; I lax and very graceful Hedysarum makes fine waving tussocks of rich crimson, while over one rock beside the water hung a curtain of Decumaria, hidden beneath its heads of creamy Jasmine-like blossoms, twisted and starry, rather indeterminate in colour and rather sickly in scent.
The Higher Hills.
Ere long, however, the way departed up into ranges where moisture clearly prevailed, and a new River was fed by real becks, descending on either side from wooded mountains. The lower stony slopes were piled with snowy or bluish mounds of Sophora viciifolia, Osteomeles was like Hawthorn in its masses, here and their flamed Caesalpinia like a Laburnum turned wrong way up, and over the cliff hung swathes of a strange, waxy-blossomed creeper, like a Hoya, while the ground was carpeted with glowing crimson Strawberries that proved on trial to be only some insipid and arid mockery of true Fragaria vesca, everywhere most generously abundant, though only hitherto in flower.
Higher in the hills the deep ravine grows every moment more interesting. T. sophora has now succeeded Rosa Banksiae, in hillocks and drifts of scented snow, and Dipelta resumes its rule more luxuriant than ever. Indeed, this glen is altogether a forcing-house, s0 profound and sheltered in its windings that it is without confidence that one contemplates its jostled tangle of sub-tropical looking treasures, even though here be arching sun-rays of Kerria, and Ilex Pernyi as hard, hideous, horrid and hostile as when one first put down one's hoarded gold for its unlovely spikes. Suddenly, at a bend in the path, came a clinching danger signal. Here there was a sunless, windless, airless cliff that fell away in sheer slabs down to the darkness of the stream below. And all that cool and shady face was aglow with blots of crimson that made me press on with fevered feet, prognosticating a Primula, instead of which the brilliant beauty proved to be a Pleione a. Pleioue with ragged lip as cherry-bright as Julia's, its mats of bulbs hugging the bare rock amid the debris of leafage, here and there over that precipitous and sombre wall. However, many safe and certain things were not lacking: amid the grove I saw two Buddleias, and Lonicera nitida or pileata was abundant by the track, pleasant in its suggestion of a small-leaved, neat-sprayed Box, but quite beyond consideration for its bunches of pallid little greenish flowers.
On the pass above there was Pinus Armandii, and on its other side I came abruptly on a cleared slope of coppice all starred with the dainty whiteness of Anemone flaccida, whose charms were enhanced by a very delicate and lovely lilac Thalictrum, while Rodgersia pinnata was sending up a purple leaf here and there amid bronzy jungles of Adiantum pedatum just unfolding. And among these were mounds of broad leaves, shining with an iridescent emerald sheen almost painful to the eye in the glare of afternoon. It was Lilium giganteum, here showing that rainbow glaze of its foliage which slugs at home so diligently prevent us from realising. After this the track descended stiffly to lower levels, and soon entered a vast gorge, upon whose sunlit walls, but only in the most impregnable position, waved glowing masses of a noble Lilac (perhaps a form or extension of S. Giraldii). Deutzias, too, hugged its crannies, while on some of its lower ledges were small mats of a most precious small Iris, midway in size and charm of blossom between I. unguicularis and I. tectorum, in stature and bloom and exquisite violet fragrance nearer to the former, but with the soft, cloudy colouring and mottlings of the latter. In the hot throat of the gorge, too, among the boulders, were bushes of a woody Buddleia, which, though possibly coarse in foliage, and possibly pallid in bloom, is yet notable for a sweet Raspberry scent of a keenness unrivalled in the race even by B. asiatica. Here the flowers seem to appear before the leaves ; they are wide, loose, compound corymbs, like some lax pale Lilacs, while the ensuing leaves are -broadly oval, woolly-grey, deeply scalloped or dentate. So now the track became a dry river bed (passing near a high water-shoot, where a Knuthiana Primula nestled in damp sods near the spray), and came down again at last into the arid lower levels, where Asphodeline most unwelcomely reappeared as the harbinger of drought and thirst.
For more information on historic Irises visit the Historic Iris Preservation Society at