Engravings by Abigail Rorer for Mimpish Squinnies: Reginald Farrer's Short Guide to Worthless Plants (Lone Oak Press, 2007). Descriptions by Reginald Farrer (1919).
1. Gentiana brevidens
Gentiana brevidens is a floppet of the worst—a vast leafy great weakly rubbish with tight heads of little and insignificant bluish stars in August, ridiculous at the end of those stalwart stems and wide wrappings of oval slack-textured foliage.
2. Aconitum napellus
Aconitum napellus, our own dismal Monkshood, now wild, or at all events now widely established along the stream sides of the West, and so persistent in its malign attendance upon man that it even climbs high into the Alps, and there forms dense jungles round the highest chalets, in the hope that some day somebody may eat of its poisoned root and die.
3. Anemone vernalis
Let no one persuade you that the Lady of the Snow is not beautiful, as you see her floating on the darkness of the earth, so dead and cold in the first moment of the dawn, and offering to the drowsy creatures of the air the new wine from her opening white chalice, brimmed over with its foam of gold. At the same time truth must be told; in lower stations, and in later stages, the stem is longer, and the blossom looks correspondingly smaller; worst of all, the Lady of the Snow clings so desperately to her departing beauties that she will not let them go, nor confess to growing old. The blossom fades but never falls, the pearly skin turns into a withered hag's, till in the end that once peerless loveliness takes a blowsy and disreputable look, like some raddled and unreverend dowager in a chestnut wig; while all the while her cousin Alpina, more wise, is advancing honestly into the full beauty of old age, and reaping the reward of its honorable silver heads.
4. Cypripedium tibeticum
Cypripedium tibeticum is a small squat thing, rather like a malignant Tibetan toad in appearance (no less than in character) when it produces its single stumpy stolid flower of immense size, on a stem of some 3 or 4 inches. For this is an evil-looking, hoody sullenness, with broad straight segments and bulging lip, the whole being of a whitish tone, but densely striped all over with lines of purple-black, while the bag is almost entirely of the same lurid tone. In cultivation, however, it avoids this condemnation by very rarely growing well enough to show those flowers at all.
5. Eryngium giganteum
Set aside the giant species, best fitted for the border, and adequately described in any catalogue of such things; set aside also the terrible species from America which are best fitted for the hot and stony wild garden where their tropical-looking foliage, like the tusk of a sword-fish, may have its splendors, and not be disgraced by the ensuing dingy heads of blossom enclosed in a cup of pointed bracts like some Protea or an Artichoke gone mad.
6. Gentiana punctata
Gentiana punctata is clad in stout pairs of corrugated light green leaves, only about a foot high, and ending in a head of flowers, which, instead of being gay and numerous, smallish, starry, and brilliant yellow, are few and very large—deeply baggy six-lobed bells, of the dingiest and sickliest greenish pallor that it would be possible for even the grossest flatterer to call yellow; and, even so, they are speckled with darkness inside till you feel you are looking into the throat of a sick frog for whom you have been called in to prescribe against the jaundice.
7. Physalis alkekengi
Who will not be made sick by the mere name of these rank and leafy weeds, with their ostentatious "Japanese Lanterns" of orange and red? These are, of course, the dismal sere decorations of winter; and any flower that allows its corpses out for so grim a purpose can only be reckoned as a blackleg in the floral Union, going out to illegitimate employment when all decent plants are enjoying the night when no man can work; and earning by this treachery a place in the garden to which their rank ugliness of summer would certainly not entitle them.
8. Rubus australis
Among the brambles there are also the Bush-lawyers of New Zealand—terrible spiny affairs with long thin arms beset with millions of minute but efficient ivory spines and hooks. The chief merit of R. australis is that it is not quite hardy, so that in time you may be relieved from the inhospitable massed mess that it forms of spidery-thin and almost leafless branchage, accumulating into an inextricable mound of white wiry whipcord, armed with insatiable little teeth as numerous, vicious, and ivorine as those of sharks, though not so large. There is practically no foliage, and neither flower nor fruit would be worth contemplation even if they ever condescended to appear. This should be planted in a cold dank place (if you want it to die).
9. Veronica alpina
Veronica alpina deserves prosecution for its false pretences. Under this name we expect something better than this particularly dingy small weed with its large hairy pairs of oval leaves on the weak creeping stems of 2 or 3 inches, that end in a parsimonious little parcel of diminutive flowers in a pale lymphatic shade of slaty-blue. V. nivalis is another of the valueless little dirty sad-blue Squinnies.
Abigail Rorer described the story behind the insanely-wonderful book title in an interview with Richard Goodman at Fine Books & Collections
Rorer decided that her next book for Lone Oak Press would be based on the writings of the eccentric British garden writer, Reginald Farrer (1880-1920), whose wit and outlandish dismissals of certain plants tickled Rorer's fancy. She chose to cull her text from Farrer's book, The English Rock Garden, which was published in 1919. "His [Farrer's] writing style was flamboyant and opinionated," Rorer said. "He painted pictures of plants with words, with some of the descriptive words fabricated but making complete visual sense nonetheless. Hence, the title of my book is Mimpish Squinnies, two of Farrer's unique descriptive words." Here's the passage of Farrer's that caught Rorer's eye: "Many of the race are very miffy or very mimpish or both…V. nivalis is another of the valueless little dirty sad-blue Squinnies."
Colophon: "Seventy signed and numbered copies of this book were produced from the spring of 2006 to the spring of 2007. Michael Russem of Kat Ran Press, Florence, Massachusetts, designed and printed the text on Zerkall Book. The Fairbanks type was set by Michael and Winifred Bixler, Skaneateles, New York. The engravings were printed and hand-colored by Abigail Rorer of The Lone Oak Press, Petersham, Massachusetts. Mark Tomlinson, Easthampton, Massachusetts, bound the book. Twelve deluxe copies are accompanied by an extra suite of the prints as a boxed set."
Endless thanks to Abigail for sharing her work on A Journey Round My Skull. Please request permission to reproduce images from her directly.
Here's hoping for a trade book edition!