Reginald Farrer: dalesman, intrepid plant hunter and gardener

Last updated: 06-27-2018

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Reginald Farrer: dalesman, intrepid plant hunter and gardener

Born in 1880, Reginald Farrer's home was Ingleborough Hall in Clapham. Termed by many to be the 'Prince of Alpine gardeners', Farrer was successful in introducing many new alpine plants in to his home village of Clapham and British gardens. This particularly interested me as I myself am a local to the county in which Farrer grew up in North Yorkshire, and know Clapham village well.

Amazing displays of Himalayan rhododendron, bamboo and other unusual alpine flowers such as Lonicera syringantha and Rodgersia aesculifolia can be seen on Ingleborough's terrain today, while in Clapham village itself Viburnum farreri and Potentilla fruticosa flourish thanks to Farrer and his far-eastern expeditions.

Farrer was a delicate child due to the poor health he experienced when young, and was home-schooled. Thus, as part of his informal education he took nature ramblings over the local limestone terrain. This piqued his early love of plants and led him to collect seeds and specimens from the Alps, Japan, Korea, Canada, Ceylon and China.

Known by many of his contemporaries to be an eccentric, and at times, ‘difficult’ character, one incident in particular illustrates this very well. In an effort to replicate the local flora he had encountered during an expedition to Ceylon, Farrer decided to create a cliff garden on a gorge near Clapham. Farrer independently rowed a small boat into the middle of a lake, loaded a shotgun filled with seeds, and fired it into the rock face. His experiment turned out to be a success as the plants flourished at the time and were acknowledged to be 'the only true natural rock garden in the country'. Sadly, the display no longer exists. However, the lake at Ingleborough reflects on its far bank the cliff face where the display had once thrived.

In 1914, with the Kew-trained plant collector William Purdom, Farrer embarked on an expedition to north west China and Tibet. He gathered many hardy plants that may be found in British gardens today, along with the flower Geranium farreri. Considered to be one of the most delicate and pleasing of all the geraniums, the newly-found species was granted Farrer's name by Otto Stapf in 1926.

Thanks to Kew's extensive Herbarium collection, I was lucky enough to be able to view a specimen of Geranium farrericollected by Farrer. Even in this form it is easy to see why he was especially captivated by the flower. The plant may also be viewed in Kew's Davies Alpine House and Rock Garden.

Farrer's contributions to the world of alpine gardening are numerous and expansive. His most influential text, arguably, is My Rock Garden, published in 1907, which introduced the notion of alpine gardens to the British horticulturalist. As well as producing 21 books alongside countless articles and letters from his expeditions, the vast number of plants he cultivated from the seeds he collected can be found listed in EHM Cox's The Plant Introductions of Reginald Farrer.

In addition to this, his contributions to the Yorkshire Dales flora of his home village of Clapham are still recognised today in various guises. For example, it is possible to follow a trail named after Farrer beginning in Clapham village, which passes many of the plants he collected and cultivated from his expeditions. Furthermore, as a nod to the intrepid explorer, The Yorkshire Dales Society adopted the bird’s eye primrose(Primula farinosa)as their logo.

However, sadly, in 1920, Reginald Farrer died while on an expedition to Upper Burma in the remote Minshan mountains where his grave still lies. His companion EHM Cox documented the trip in Farrer's Last Journey, Upper Burma 1919–20.

I found the opportunity to research Reginald Farrer's story incredibly interesting and I am delighted to see that he is still receiving recognition for the numerous contributions he made to alpine gardening to this day.

Among the Hills by Reginald Farrer, London: Waterstone, 1985.

Farrer’s Last Journey, Upper Burma 1919-1920 by Euan Hillhouse Methven (1893-1977), London: Dulau & co. ltd., 1926.

A Rage for Rock Gardening: the story of Reginald Farrer, gardener, writer and plant collectorby Nicola Shulman,Boston: David R. Godine Publisher, c2004.

Reginald Farrer: at home in the Yorkshire Dales by W.R. Mitchell, Giggleswick, Yorkshire: Castleberg, 2002.

The Plant Introductions of Reginald Farrer by Cox, Euan Hillhouse Methven (1893-1977), London: New Flora and Silva Ltd, 1930.

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