I love hollyhocks. For me they are the quintessential English summer garden flower. They tower over me, up to 3 metres tall, in a range of colours, from deep maroon almost black, through reds and purples to pink and cream.
They look lovely at the back of a border providing height and colour. They can also stand in groups or alone as a feature and in the south of England they often grow outside people’s front doors, apparently emerging from cracks in the paving. They are easy to grow, seem to self-seed prolifically and bees love the big open flowers of the single varieties.
Visitors to the garden at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House in summer will currently find them in a few places; in crates outside the Drawing Room window brightening up the back wall, lurking amongst other shrubs and plants near the fence on Swinton Grove, and newly grown for this year, along the brick wall that divides us from the neighbouring property
We don’t know for certain that Elizabeth Gaskell grew them in her garden, though I really hope she did. We have managed to find one reference to them in her work. In Sylvia’s Lovers Chapter 41 she writes ‘The roadside cottage gardens were gay with hollyhocks and Michaelmas daisies and marigolds, and the bright panes of the windows glittered through a veil of China roses.’ What a vivid description.
The Common Hollyhock or Alcea rosea originated in China and moved into Europe during the 15th Century. They are first mentioned in print in The Great Herbal of William Turner (1509-1568) who has been described as the father of English Botany. He lists the Holyoke, its name derived from Middle English Holy and Anglo Saxon or Celtic (Welsh) hoc meaning mallow. This derivation of their name is also given in the Oxford English Dictionary
Another more exotic explanation for their name is that the plants were used to make a salve that was good for crusaders’ horses which had been injured on their hind legs or hocks. So Holly is from holy/The Holy Land and hock, the injured part of the horse. This and much more historical information about them is on: https://thegardenstrust.blog/2020/09/05/hollyhocks/
The site mentioned above also shows a very early illustration of them by Jean Bourdichon from The Grand Book of Hours commissioned by Anne of Brittany (1477-1514), Queen of France. Painted between 1503-1508, they are described as roses d’ oustremer or roses from overseas .
In the 19th Century Elizabeth Gaskell’s distant cousin Charles Darwin took a great interest in the plant for many years, fascinated by its ability to stay true to its colour even when planted close together with others. He conducted lengthy experiments and decided to ask ‘…. other “celebrated growers’ of hollyhocks, ‘such as Mr Chator of Saffron Walden’ for information and advice. ‘The facts which I wish to know, are whether some or many of the variations of Hollyhock come true by seed. And secondly whether the great raisers of Hollyhock seed, who sell named kinds, whether they grow the varieties far apart to prevent crossing. And thirdly, whether when vars. of Hollyhocks are artificially crossed & castrated, whether the colours of the seedlings are generally intermediate.’
It seems that he was never able to come up with answers to his enquiries as the nurserymen who were assisting him fixated on developing double-flower varieties and destroyed the single flowers he had carefully obtained for his experiments in the process.
This week I learned one more delightful fact about the hollyhocks in the Elizabeth Gaskell’s House garden. The plants were grown from seed provided by fellow garden volunteer Ann. She obtained the seed from the owners of a B&B garden she used to visit in Somerset. The B&B was in the village of Montacute where there is a beautiful and special National Trust property dating from the beginning of the 17th Century. I grew up in Dorset not too many miles from Montacute and visited this property more than once with my parents in the1960s and 70s. So is it possible that I saw the ancestors of these hollyhocks in Somerset decades before I was planting their offspring around the garden at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House? How’s that for circularity!
Jane Mathieson, Volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House
With thanks to fellow gardeners Chris and Ann