[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. You can see her work, including all fourteen mimpish squinnies, here: http://www.theloneoakpress.com/prints/
We left the talented Mr. Farrer among his gentians, some of which he loved, many of which he did not. G. farreri is his favorite gentian. The passage I had seen quoted and excerpted turns out not to be from On the Eaves of the World at all, but rather from his final work, The Rainbow Bridge, published posthumously in 1921. There is a different tone to this work -- not surprising, given that he was writing it in the closing days of the First World War, after touring and writing about three ghastly fronts in The Void of War: Letters from Three Fronts.. Both his preface and his colophon in The Rainbow Bridge speak explicitly of a sense of beauty snatched from the lowering darkness, and that sense permeates much of the book implicitly. Although he did not fight, Farrer appears to have become one of that group that Tom Shippey refers to as "traumatized authors."
"Let us go, then, for a while out of storm into calm, out of the clamour of guns into the radiant stillness that fills the remote heart of Asia. For, after all, the guns may roar for their time, and lay a world in ruins round us ; but now the irises are blooming again at the Halls of Heaven," writes Farrer in his preface to The Rainbow Bridge, on May 19, 1918, before the guns stopped. Here is Farrer at possibly his most rhapsodic, clearly aware that the discovery of this plant is probably the high water mark of his collecting career, and still filled with wonder at the happy accident that resulted in his lost plant coming home after all.
( click for description of the discovery of G. farreri )
The Rainbow Bridge, pp. 281-285; p. 292
[Note: genus and species names were not italicized in this edition]
And hardly had I started when, in the fine turf that crowned the top of a sloping boulder, there stared at me a new Gentian, a Gentian that instantly obliterates all others of its race, and sinks even G. Verna and G. Gentianella into a common depth of dullness. When the first awe was over, I gave tongue for Bill [William Purdom], and together, in reverend silence, we contemplated that marvel of luminous loveliness. Not the faintest hope possessed me that this glaring miracle could be a new species. Had not Przewalsky crossed this range ? How then could he possibly have missed a splendor so assaulting as this ? I forgot the chances of the season, and the complete and abject insignificance of Gentiana Farreri when not in flower. For Gentiana Farreri it indeed is, first seen as a Gentian-promise on the crown of Mother Hubbard, and even now, in its overwhelming beauty, attributed by my pessimistic modesty to G. Przewalskyi.
The collector's dream is to have some illustrious plant to bear his name immortal through the gardens of future generations, long after he himself shall have become dust of their paths. Mere beauty will not do it ; for the plant may fail and fade in cultivation, and his name be no more known, except to the learned, as attached to a dead dry sliver on the sheets of a herbarium. To become vividly immortal in the Valhalla of gardeners, one must own a species as vigorous as it is glorious, a thing capable of becoming, and remaining, a household word among English enthusiasts, such a constant friend, for example, as Gentiana Gentianella or Primula auricula. And how few of our new Chinese importations will probably do this ! Already Professor Balfour had refused me several of my Primulas, as being, despite their loveliness, of a temper so tricky as evidently not to be long for this world in English gardens, and therefore not fitted permanently to bear aloft my name in them....
But Gentiana Farreri is of a very different kidney, and bids fair to be as solid a permanency as G. Gentianella itself. It is perfectly hardy, and what is very remarkable in any Gentian but miraculously so in a Gentian so miraculously beautiful it is perfectly vigorous and easy to deal with in any reasonable conditions of culture in a cool place not parched or water-logged. Here, indeed, it forms masses many times the size of any clump you will see on its own alps ; and already special pilgrimages go to Edinburgh in August and September, to see those jungles of my Gentian, a yard through, with some three hundred gigantic trumpets opening at once. Shall I add that, in addition to growing so freely, and flowering so lavishly in so late and dull a moment of the year, this preposterously good-tempered exception to the rule of its race keeps its glory open, rain or shine, can be struck from cuttings as copiously as a Viola, and layered along its shoots as complacently as any carnation.
And its beauty! Nothing could I foretell of its temper and future history that day, as I stood rapt in contemplation before the actual plant, the last and greatest event of my second season, and well worth the whole two years' expedition anyhow, merely to have seen it. A fine frail tuft like grass radiating some half a dozen fine flapping stems that is G. Farreri, quite inconspicuous and obscure in all the high lawns of the Da-Tung, even down into the Dene as low as Wolvesden House. Until it flowers ; and every day in early September brings a fresh crashing explosion of colour in the fold of the lawns. For each of those weakly stems concludes in one enormous upturned trumpet, more gorgeous than anything attained by G. Gentianella, but in the same general style and form. But the outline is different, with a more subtle swell to the chalice, and that is freaked outside in heavy lines of black-purple that divide long Vandykes of dim periwinkle blue with panels of Nankeen buff between ; inside the tube and throat are white, but the mouth and the wide bold flanges are of so luminous and intense a light azure that one blossom of it will blaze out at you among the grass on the other side of the valley. In no other plant, except perhaps, Ipomoea Learii, or Nemophila, do I know such a shattering acuteness of colour : it is like a clear sky soon after sunrise, shrill and translucent, as if it had a light inside. It literally burns in the alpine turf like an electric jewel, an incandescent turquoise.
The Rainbow Bridge, illustration facing p. 282
Do you wonder if I stood spell-bound ? Do you wonder if my heart also sank to my boots in despair ? For how was I to get this glory home ? A plant that only blooms in the beginning of September when will it seed ? The only possible chance that I could see lay in transporting living clumps ; for we clearly could not go on waiting in Wolvesden for the seed to ripen. Nor was there anyone we could trust to collect it after we had gone. And yet to miss this would be to miss the apex of my whole expedition, a thing that ranked already with my Isopyrum and even above it for the uniqueness of its colour. So I did transport the living clumps ; with what awe and attendance you may judge.
And the Trans-Siberian journey killed them all. My disappointment cut so deep that I put it behind me, and resolutely banished the memory of that Gentian from my heart. Months passed, and the War submerged me in work, and London engulphed me, and the garden ceased to exist, except as a remote memory. But in August of that year (1916) a little package reached me from the Botanic Garden at Edinburgh. Would I give the history of the enclosed Gentian ? I tore open the box, and there, large and lovely and luminous as ever, was the lost Da-Tung Gentian, which I had dismissed all hope of ever seeing again.
Do you ask how the miracle was wrought ? I hope you do, for I intend to tell you. Can you remember how in 1914, over the high lawns of Thundercrown and the Ardjeri Alps, I collected the elusive seed of Gentiana hexaphylla on Thundercrown, with my own hands, and vicariously, by the servants, on the fells of Ardjeri ? And do you also remember that some of the packets brought down by the servants seemed to show a different form, to be larger and thicker and darker in the pod than any of G. hexaphylla's ? So different, indeed, did they seem to me that I ultimately sent them, as a precautionary measure, under different numbers, as F315A , and F473. And these germs it was that in due course revealed the despaired-of G. Farreri to the amazed eyes of Edinburgh. On so frail a thread, and across so complete an intervening gulf of gloom, was accomplished the introduction to our gardens of so pre-eminent a plant. In any Comtist calendar, that reckons only the really important things for human happiness (rather than the mere deaths of Sovereigns, and passing of Bills that make no difference, and conclusions of peaces made of pie crust), large and red will be the letters that mark the August day which first revealed my Gentiana to cultivation.
After this vision of beauty you will easily figure to yourself how easily I sailed across the undulations of the Alps, and towered lightly to the ridge of Crest Royal, illuminated and drawn on, as I climbed, by occasional flares of the Gentian, just beginning in the turf of the hill-side. On Crest Royal there was the Little Queen to be got, and the sweet pink Erysimum ; for long I agonized vainly for the latter, and at last saw the clustered spectacles of its seed heads at my very feet, and away down the sunny slope. Broken-backed by the minuteness of my search for the Primula, I straightened out to descend the scree on the other side, in which a flannel-leaved Saussurea was the only sign of life, with elongated domes of straw-coloured fluff and wool in a dense web like crystallized wadding. In the big dish below the Harebell Poppy was now in the pleasantest state of seed, all the pods fat and just dehiscent, not yet dried out, nor dashed by storms. I spent a very happy hour or two snapping off their jolly plumpnesses till I was bulged as a barrel in all my pockets. And so, over the rim of the dish at last, and down the enormous descent of the rib-ridge into Wolvesden again. And at the very bottom, in a lawn of the Dene, what should once more blaze upon my sight but my own Gentian ? And so ended the crucial and final expedition of my second year. Poor Bill was tired and depressed with the monotony of our matter, but I, who had feared crossluck up there, alike with the weather and the seeds, now concluded the book of Wolvesden in a climax of radiance, so to have been spared by the former, and so triumphantly to have conquered the latter....
Breakings-up are dreadful ; I will not dwell on my farewells to that golden place, where my Gentian was now in the full of its splendour beside the stone-shoots up the lawns across the beck, so unsufferably beautiful that even now my memory staggers in the thought of it, as I saw it that last morning, and said good-bye to it (as I feared, for ever) in the nippy sparkle of that virginal air, filled with strange haunting autumnal fragrances, chill and delicious and sad.
The Rainbow Bridge has been digitized and is available from The Internet Archive: