Reginald Farrer and Alpine Plants

Rock gardens and the alpine plants that grow in them have been popular since the early years of the 20th century. They became fashionable following the publication in 1907 of My Rock Garden, a book that remained in print until about 1950. It was followed a year later by Alpines and Bog Plants. Both books were written by Reginald Farrer (1880–1920), a plant collector who made his first rock garden in an abandoned quarry at the age of 14 and helped make another at St. John's College, University of Oxford, while he was a student there. Rock garden plants are known as alpines, which suggests that they originate in the European Alps. Many do, but others are Asian, and it was in Japan that Farrer acquired his ideas about garden design. In 1902 he spent eight months living in Tokyo, where he rented a house with a Japanese rock garden. He used his home as a base for brief excursions to Korea and China. This was his first botanical expedition, and his first book described it. Published in 1904, that book was called The Garden of Asia. Farrer later opened the Craven Nursery in his hometown of Clapham, Yorkshire, where he specialized in Asian mountain plants. The nursery closed during the economic troubles of the 1920s. Farrer believed that a rock garden should look as informal as possible and that its plants should appear to be growing in their natural habitat.

Reginald John Farrer was born in 1880 (the precise date is not recorded) at Ingleborough Hall, in the village of Clapham, North Yorkshire. He was born with a speech defect caused by a cleft palate and had to undergo many surgical procedures, as a consequence of which he was unable to attend school. Instead, he was educated at home until he entered St. John's College, University of Oxford, at the age of 17. He graduated in 1902.

On his return from Japan, Farrer's ambition was to be a novelist and poet, but his attempts were unsuccessful, and he turned instead to gardening. My Rock Garden and Alpines and Bog Plants both proved popular, and he followed them with In a Yorkshire Garden (1909) and Among the Hills (1910). He wrote The English Rock Garden in 1913, but its publication was delayed until 1919, after the end of World War I. When not writing, Farrer enjoyed walking and climbing in France, Switzerland, and Italy with friends who shared his enthusiasm for gardens. In 1907 he visited Sri Lanka, and at about that time he became a Buddhist. Farrer described his plant-hunting excursions in the Italian Dolomites in The Dolomites: King Laurin's Garden, published in 1913.

The following year Farrer embarked on a more ambitious expedition accompanied by his friend William Purdom (1880–1921), a British plant explorer and botanist who had been trained at Kew Gardens. They spent two years exploring Tibet and Kansu Province of northwestern China, collecting hardy plants that were later introduced to British gardens. As always, Farrer's aim was to select plants that would grow in Britain with no need for costly heated greenhouses, so ordinary gardeners of modest means could enjoy them. Farrer told the story of this expedition in his two-volume work On the Eaves of the World, published in 1917.

As well as being a skilled field botanist and gardener, Farrer was also a talented painter. The Fine Art Society exhibited the watercolors he painted of landscapes in Tibet and Kansu in 1918, and he sent his paintings of plants to Sir Isaac Bayley Balfour (1853–1922), regius keeper at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, together with plant specimens and seeds. Balfour had a special interest in Sino-Himalayan plants.

Farrer's final expedition set off in 1919 to the mountains of Myanmar. This was less successful than his explorations in China and Tibet, because plants adapted to the tropical climate were mainly unsuitable for British conditions. Farrer died there, probably from diphtheria, on October 17, 1920.

There is still a fine display of Himalayan plants growing wild around Ingleborough Hall. These were sown by Farrer, sometimes by rather unorthodox methods. On one occasion he loaded a shotgun with seeds and fired them into a gorge and cliff near his home.