Apr. 3rd, 2016

lblanchard: (swannfountain)
[This is an occasional series of postings inspired by Abigail Rorer, Mimpish Squinnies: Reginald Farrer's Short Guide to Worthless Plants. Rorer's book includes prints of fourteen plants Farrer considered worthless-- an interesting hybrid of botanically accurate and...different. This is not about one of those fourteen plants.]

Reginald Farrer, the eccentric self-taught botanist, could be as effusive about the plants he likes as he is condemnatory of the ones he doesn't.

Back in 2014 I cat-sat for my neighbor when she traveled to Switzerland. What would I like from Switzerland? she asked me. On a whim, I said: bring me some Edelweiss seeds. So she did -- I've been meaning to plant them but have been intimidated by their reputation for being difficult to grow. The other day I decided to consult my new Farrer tome, The English Rock-Garden, and Mr. Farrer has no time for that nonsense. Pish and tosh, says Farrer, you can grow them in a London window-box; and so I think I'm just about ready to try them.

Saith the Master (I've added a couple paragraph breaks to his single block of type to ease our 21st century eyeballs):

Leontopodium alpinum: -- The Flannel-flower is of the easiest cultivation in any open place in light soil. It dreads wet and stagnation in winter, as becomes a desert plant; and lime in abundance helps to keep white the whitened sepulchre of its sham flower. It can be grown admirably in window-boxes in London, where the smuts enhance its colour. Were it not for the idiotic superstitions and persistent rubbish of romance that have gathered round this species, no one would refuse credit and even affection to its wide woolly stars of silver, which, in the garden as on the wild hills, take special value if grown in the moraine among clumps of violet-and-gold Aster alpinus.

Anton Hartinger - Atlas der Alenflora.
Created 31 December 1881
Sourced from Wikipedia Leontopodium alpina entry, where it is listed as public domain.

It is often a really beautiful sight, covering the highest lawns of the Alps with tufts of grey, and galaxies of pale flannel starfishes, as common Daisies cover an English tennis-court. But to call this plant an alpine, to imagine it rare and precious and difficult of attainment, this is to provoke the meekest into exposure of a fraud so impudent and foolish that thereby the merits of Edelweiss itself are unduly shamed and darkened. It is not an alpine at all; it belongs to the great central European and Asiatic deserts, but, being a very profuse seeder, has established itself on every mountain range of the Northern hemisphere in the Old World. It is not a rarity, but so universally common that you may rely on tramping acres of it on almost any alpine range above the altitude of 5500 feet; but it is so far from being a typical and representative high-alpine that it never ascends beyond the fine mountain turf of some 7000 feet, more or less; and it is so far from being difficult of attainment that on every such slope or final valley under the peaks, or ridge between them, one is treading dense flat lawns of it, in places where a dozen prams could race abreast without imperilling themselves, their conductors, or their inmates. Yet every season the misguided go dropping off precipices on which a few stray tufts have seeded down; not knowing that 200 feet higher, in the soft alpine grass, they could be picking basins-full of blossoms in half an hour’s gentle and octogenarian stroll before dinner.

Leontpodium alpinum -- collected by my Aunt Bert in 1901 on a trip that included
Switzerland and London, so there's no telling where she picked them

So the insane legend still continues, fostered by guides who make a practice, in front of the hotels, of seeming to quest Edelweiss along the face of pathless precipices, where eyelash-hold is of the slightest; and sustained by pompous measures of protection in favour of the commonest and most reproductive and most massively colonizing of all mountain plants. Still the reverent inquiry is made in hushed tones, “And have you ever seen the Edelweiss?” Still maidens grow misty-eyed at the thought of it, and after having tramped the Alps from end to end declare that they would die happy if only they could see the Edelweiss; an aspiration which proves their pedestrianism never to have progressed beyond the highroads of the passes, for had they anywhere there diverged a hundred yards to right or left it would have been hard luck indeed had they not found themselves upon level lawns of their heart’s desire.

It is necessary, indeed, to repeat, that in almost every range, be it of lime or granite, you have only to get to the open downs about 2000 feet above your hotel, to find matted wide carpets everywhere of Flannel-flower, sharing the scant and stony herbage with Aster alpinus and Anemone vernalis. Go higher, into the grim and stony places where the true high-alpines have their home; Flannel–flower has ceased completely, a species belonging exclusively to the levels of stone and fine poor grass at mid elevations on all the ridges of the world. It varies greatly in form; some districts in which it abounds produce only dumpy stems and stars of miserable size and scanty rays; on others it grows fine and fat, till certain valleys produce Edelweiss so noble that, as I was once told, for encouragement, “All men look your hat, if you such an it” [sic] the “it” not being the hat (which is hardly hypothetical) but the ample bloom of Flannel-flower with which Teutonic fashion adorns it.

Garden forms of special amplitude have been raised from the seed which it so copiously produces, such as L. a. lindavicum, together, always, with “majors” and “grandiflorums” and so forth, being selections from the type; the other sub-species are more distinct, each range, almost, producing its own. L. sibiricum is in all parts taller, with a variety of its own, L. s. altaicum; L. transylvanicum comes under the heading of L. a. lindavicum; L. himalaicum, with its under-form sikkimensis, has smaller stars and bears them later in the season; and the most remote of all, deserving perhaps to be raised to specific rank of its own as Gnaphalium Sieboldii, is L. japonicum, being almost a tiny bush with very many more rays to the star and the leaves only white beneath, but on the upper surface of a deep and glossy dark green. All these come as readily form seed as the type-species, and may be grown with as little difficulty.

Now I am a patroness (in a very small way) of Abigail Rorer, I am even more reluctant to appropriate her images. Besides, she has no print of Leontopodium alpinum for sale, or at least I don't think so. (I finally succumbed and ordered the print of Cyprepedium tibeticum). You can view her images at the Lone Oak Press site. This page has all 14 mimpish squinnies, a print of Reginald Farrer in his oriental drag, and many other delights, or you can explore the rest of the site).

EDITED 4/13/2016 to add --  Aha...in the Wikipedia entry on Edelweiss I find what was probably the source of all the Edelweiss hysteria against which Farrer raged in his entry:

Berthold Auerbach published a novel entitled Edelweiss in 1861, where the difficulty for an alpinist to acquire an edelweiss flower was exaggerated to the point of claiming that "the possession of one is a proof of unusual daring."[12] This idea at the time was becoming part of the popular mythology of early alpinism.[13] Auerbach's novel appeared in English translation in 1869, prefaced with a quote attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson,

"There is a flower known to botanists, one of the same genus with our summer plant called 'Life-Everlasting', a Gnaphaliumlike that, which grows on the most inaccessible cliffs of the Tyrolese mountains, where the chamois dare hardly venture, and which the hunter, tempted by its beauty and by his love (for it is immensely valued by the Swiss maidens), climbs the cliffs to gather, and is sometimes found dead at the foot, with the flower in his hand. It is called by botanists the Gnaphalium leontopodium, but by the Swiss EDELWEISS, which signifies NOBLE PURITY."

Source: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leontopodium_alpinum


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