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Hollyhocks (Alcea spp.) Part 5: Further Travels of the Hollyhock

Bysmalow, hock, hock-holler, hollek, hollinhocke, holy hoke. Passe-rose, Rose tremiere, Stockrosen. Alcea vossa, Malva rosa, Rosa di mare. Gulhatem cic. (With apologies for missing diacritics.)

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Not to mention Outlandish Rose or Rosa Ultramarina.

When a plant has a lot of names, it’s a good sign that it’s traveled a bit, and met a lot of people.

I haven’t found much about the history of hollyhocks in France, Germany, and Turkey, the places where the names at the beginning of this post come from. Or in the Middle East, India, and China. Maureen Gilmer tells a story of how Priscilla, a slave in 1830s U.S., took seeds from her plantation slave quarters to the Cherokee chief she was sold to. Priscilla was eventually freed, ran an inn, and grew the hollyhocks there. In 1950, seed from those hollyhocks was sent to Oklahoma, where the Cherokees had been forced to migrate.

Hollyhocks may have started out as plants for the wealthy, shown in Chinese art and (much later) in the walled gardens of the rich. But it wasn’t long before the innate hardiness of hollyhocks, and the large supplies of seed they provide, brought them into the working classes.

Many people now associate the hollyhock with barns and barn walls, rather than walled gardens. Barns, walls, and fences are all good, easy supports for hollyhocks, and save gardeners from tedious staking. As time went on, hollyhocks acquired an even more plebian use. Outhouses were commonly screened by hollyhocks in the 18th and 19th centuries. Ladies of delicate sensibilities would ask to see the hollyhocks in the same way that some women today ask for a powder room, though they don’t have any plans to powder their hair.

How did hollyhocks get from the gardens of the wealthy to the gardens of ordinary folks? It’s the old story: the gardeners who actually did the work in the walled gardens of the wealthy took home seeds and cuttings; what they grew on was passed along to friends, family, and neighbors, and in a generation or two what was a plant for the wealthy becomes a denizen of the cottage garden. Since hollyhocks exchange their pollen pretty freely, no doubt many of these gardeners helped them along to new colors and forms.

Cottage gardens, by the way, were (and still are) the sources of prize-winning, groundbreaking breeding in plants, primroses and tulips being only two examples. I would guess for the harder-pressed cottage gardeners who needed the food from their gardens to eke out meager wages, cottage gardens also served as a lab for plants that would grow most easily, without a lot of care. Hollyhocks may have figured in both the breeding and the easy-care categories-with the added bonus of being useful for medicine and cooking should the need arise. But probably they were mostly grown for their beauty.

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You can see how, by selection over generations, this ‘Crème de Cassis’ hollyhock (the name means cream of blackcurrant) could have evolved from the rose hollyhock at top. And gone on to morph into hollyhock nigra.

Next post: Hollyhocks: the new fiber?

References:

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

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

Maureen Gilmer, “Hollyhocks, an American Garden Staple”

Wuv’n Acres http://www.wuvie.net/hockwhich.htm

{ 3 comments… add one }

  • Nancy Bond August 31, 2008, 7:02 pm

    Hollyhocks are such an old standard in the garden — I can’t tell you how much I’m enjoying this hollyhock history. :)

  • Pomona Belvedere September 2, 2008, 10:20 am

    I’m so glad to share my plant-research mania, Nancy.

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