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Hollyhocks (Alcea spp.) Part 2: How Hollyhocks Got to Europe

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I don’t know the name of this burgundy hollyhock, and neither does the friend whose garden I found it in. But I sure like it. It’s very similar to A. rosea nigra, but has just that little difference in color that makes it wine red instead of eggplant black. If anyone can give me a cultivar name for this, I’d be grateful.

It’s fitting that this post should start with a mysterious hollyhock. There’s a lot of mystery to the story of how hollyhocks became a part of European and British gardens.

Clearly, hollyhocks came to the Middle East early on. Several sources quote this area as the native home of the hollyhock. But since I’m working on the theory that they originate from China, my guess is that they got to the Middle East via the many ancient trade routes between the Middle East and China. (Besides the overland Silk Road, there were probably routes by sea as well.) The hundreds of years of the Caliphates and the Ottoman Empire were a huge influence in plant breeding and gardening; those of us of European heritage use many of their garden designs today.

Walled gardens, irrigation, fountains, and formal ideas about garden design originated in Arab culture. Even the idea of paradise as a garden did (remember Eden?). The very word “paradise” derives from an Arabic word for garden. And these garden ideas spread: the Caliphates and the later Ottoman Empire were vast enterprises which in their heyday spread as far as present-day Russia, Austria, Southern France, most of Spain, and pretty much the entire Mediterranean perimeter.

The sultans of the Ottoman Empire were so interested in plants that they had traders on the Silk Road collect promising bulbs for breeding, starting off the beginning of the modern tulip (you knew I’d work tulips in here somehow). So it doesn’t seem so far-fetched to imagine that they also asked their traders to come back with desirable plant seeds. One of those might have been the hollyhock.

The first mention of hollyhocks in English literature is in the John Gardiner’s poem “Feate of Gardenini”, copied into a 1440 manuscript. Since manuscripts were a lot rarer then than they are today, probabilities are good that this was an already-known poem already in circulation through the oral tradition. This means it might have been composed generations earlier.

Which fits in well with the accepted theory that the Crusaders brought back hollyhock seeds with them. Hoc is Anglo-Saxon for mallow (hollyhocks are closely related to mallows, and, until recently, they were in the same genus). Holy has the same meaning it has today: the whole name signifies “a mallow from the holy lands”.

The Crusaders weren’t happy with Arab rule of Europe, and their goal was a lot more expansionist than holy. In many areas of Europe, Moslems coexisted peacefully with Christians, and introduced many of the arts we now think of as European. But sadly, as so often, religion became the battle flag for cultural and political differences.  The Crusaders were looking for lebensraum, and they thought they knew how to get it: invade the Arab lands, as theirs had been invaded hundreds of years ago. They called it a war of Christianity with Islam.

Like many other wars, it became more complicated as it went on, because by this time Arab and European cultures had been entwined for hundreds of years. When you spend time in a country (and slow travel meant the Crusaders spend a lot of time in lands that were Arab-dominated, including their own), you begin to adopt its rhythms, learn its language, maybe even want to settle there. For some, it might have been a little like the influx of former colonists to the UK: the ruling culture becomes the culture of reference, and the colonized people are drawn to its center.

While it is true that the Crusaders committed many atrocities in their holy land-grab operations, it’s also true that some of the Europeans stayed, intermarried, and became traders in the Middle East. It was the start of a commerce that brought us many of the spices that are now considered common in European cooking. Pepper, for instance, was a great and expensive rarity in the 13th century. Maybe hollyhock seeds were another trade commodity.

Or maybe some of those Arab rulers of Europe longed for the hollyhocks of the Middle East, and sent for seeds. As with so many other plants, the gardeners of the wealthy take cuttings and seeds, and within a generation or two, exotic rarities become cottage-garden commoners.

However they got into European gardens, hollyhocks were originally grown there not as an ornamental, but as a food.

And if you look at the way they grow, this makes a lot of sense. They are easy to grow and have large leaves which come up in early spring, when food is in short supply. The taste of the leaves is actually quite good, and though the slight hairiness is a bit off-putting to modern palates, the basic texture is nice, also. I steamed some hollyhock leaves with fish to try them out. They were really pretty tasty. If you put hollyhock leaves in a soup or ratatouille, I think the hairy factor would fade, and the good flavor and nutrition would be left.

Chinese tradition says that hollyhocks should be cooked in the seventh month, which is equivalent to August, so I felt free to try their leaves in late summer. It does seem to me, though, that they would be tenderer and better earlier on. There’s also a reference to the flowers being prized in Chinese cookery, but no information on how.

Food wasn’t the only value to hollyhocks, though, in China or Europe. They were also medicinal. Being so closely related to the mallow, they were (and probably still are) used for many of the same illnesses: respiratory complaints and inflammation. John Gerard, who lived from 1545 to 1612, put them in his herbal. “The roots, leaves, and seeds serve for all those things for which the wilde mallows doe…”

But Gerard also was one of the many to note how pretty and easy to grow hollyhocks were. “Hollihocks with purple floures hath great broad leaves, confusedly indented about the edges, and likewise toothed like a saw…The floures are double, and of a bright purple coulour…The second yeere after they are sowne they bring forth their floures in July and August, when the seed is ripe the stalke withereth, the root remaineth, and sendeth forth new stalkes, leaves and floures, many yeares after.” So hollyhocks were a short-lived perennial in England, too.

It’s interesting to see that double hollyhocks were around this early. It seems that there was a huge variety of colors and shapes of hollyhocks available even in the 1600s. Parkinson, who wrote one of the early English gardening treatises , describes hollyhocks “both single and double, of many and sundry coulours, yeeld ouat their flowers like Roses on their tall branches, like Trees, to sute you with flowers when almost you have no other, to grace out your Garden.”

He even mentions one “of a darke red like blacke bloud”, which could be that very hollyhock that grows in my friend’s garden.

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Next post: big fluffy hollyhocks, plus more hollyhock history

References:

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 1971

Alice M. Coats, Flowers and Their Histories, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1956, 1968

Mrs. C. F. Leyel, Officier de l’Academie Francaise, Fellow of the Royal Institute, Elixirs of Life, first pub. 1948 faber and faber London. pb reprint 1987

Ilya V. Gaiduk, The Great Confrontation: Europe and Islam Through the Centuries, Ivan R. Dee, 2003

John Gerard, Gerard’s Herbal, The Essence therof distilled by Marcus Woodward from the Edition of Th. Johnson, 1636, Crescent Books reprint, 1985

{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Karen - An Artists Garden August 22, 2008, 12:58 am

    What a glorious colour that hollyhock is.
    Karen.

  • Zoë August 26, 2008, 2:27 am

    This is one thing that interests me greatly too; the origin of plants, how they came to us and the history and context that goes along with it. Really interesting post; thanks for sharing.

  • Pomona Belvedere August 27, 2008, 10:18 pm

    I’m glad you enjoyed the history and context, it’s one of my big fascinations with plants.

  • Pomona Belvedere August 27, 2008, 10:19 pm

    And they are a truly gorgeous color. Where am I going to fit all those hollyhocks I want to grow next year?

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