Some flowers – like tulips, peonies or roses – are important or famous enough to have their stories told in books that make the best seller list. But while some others have champions who’ve written about them, or are the subject of serious monographs there are some other well-known flowers that don’t seem to have attracted that much attention. One of them is that stalwart of the cottage garden the hollyhock.
Do you even know where they come from? When they arrived in Britain? Why was Darwin interested in them? Do they actually have a history that’s worth knowing? And why did Emma Townsend, writing in the Independent call them “the Laura Ashley curtains of the gardening world, dangerously blowsy and 10 years out of date.” and say “you certainly won’t catch anyone using them in a garden at oh-so-modern Chelsea.”
Read on to find out…
Some basics first: the common hollyhock, Alcea rosea , to give it its scientific name is a member of Mallow family. ‘Alcea‘ comes from the Greek word Alceos, meaning ‘to cure’ and many mallows, including hollyhocks appear in early herbals and medical texts as cures for a wide range of ailments from sore throats and bladder inflammation to soothing horses’ hooves. There are around 60 species in the genus, all from Asia or Europe but it’s thought that the hollyhock originated in China, but had migrated to the eastern Mediterranean region by the time of the Crusades.
Eleanor of Castile, the wife of Edward I travelled to Palestine with him and legend has it that she brought the seed back to England on their return in 1272. But even if the story isn’t strictly true, because hollyhocks have lots of sturdy easily transportable seeds it’s quite possible that they did come back with returning crusaders. That sounds like the same route they reached France where they’re called roses tremiere. They featured in the Book of Hours of Anne of Brittany [1477-1514], the queen of France, where they are described as roses d’oustremer – roses from overseas.
Hollyhocks were certainly growing in England by c 1440 because they are mentioned in The Feate of Gardening by John Gardener. The first time they appear in print here is in the Great Herbal of William Turner, the father of English botany, where they are described as “holyoke” from Middle English ‘holy‘ or ‘blessed’ and the Anglo Saxon word ‘hoc‘ meaning ‘mallow’.
Other species arrived in Britain during the 16thc including the Antwerp Hollyhock, Alcea ficifolia, which confusingly is originally from Siberia. Like so many other plants it was misnamed after the port the ship carrying the seed had arrived from, or perhaps because the seeds were obtained from plants growing there. Shakespeare mentions mallow but not hollyhocks, but I’m sure if he’d lived a little longer he would have done, because by 1629 the black hollyhock had arrived. Of course Alcea rosea nigra isn’t really black but a very dark reddish-purple but even so Plants with such dark flowers were unusual and would doubtless have become a talking point for anyone interested in gardening.
By the mid-18thc hollyhocks had become common in gardens throughout the country but had not, unlike the auricula, anemone and ranunculus, become a florist’s flower, capable of easy hybridising by amateurs. Instead it was just seeds of “Chinese hollyhock” that were commonly available from nurserymen’s catalogues, although Philip Miller of Chelsea Physic Garden also reported getting seeds from Istria, and seeds of a double sort from India.
Its horticultural value was well recognised and as “it only wants Scarcity to place the Hollyhock amongst the choicest flowers. The plant is of exalted stature, and of regular growth. The flowers are large and double and in the present kind most elegantly colour’d.” [ Eden, or, A compleat body of gardening by William Edwards et al 1757]
Nevertheless until the early 19thc Hollyhocks were still thought of as common – maybe an early example of a non-U garden plant. However Henry Philips devoted a whole chapter of his Flora Historica of 1824 to them. Referring to it as just a cottage garden plant he noted that “it is not adapted for the small parterre” but suggested that one day it could be grown in hedgerows and field boundaries…on certain conditions!
It’s not really until the late 1830s when the hollyhock hits the big time and begins to attracts the attention of plant improvers but also of scientists including Charles Darwin.
Let’s start with the improvers: regular readers of the blog will recall the name of George Glenny, the opinionated and somewhat irascible Victorian horticultural writer. Glenny had, from the 1820s, been trying to devise and impose rules for the judging of flowers, and specifying very precisely the shape, size, layout and colouring of blooms. After tackling rose, tulip and many of the the florists flowers Glenny now turned his attention to the Hollyhock demanding they be “improved”. He was not the only one. Benjamin Maund’s magazine The Botanic Garden also carried an article about such rules in 1845 arguing the flower had to” frame its costume to the fashion of the times”.
Part of the reason scientists turned their interest to hollyhocks is precisely because , by and large, they not been “improved” and could be used for experiments to see how plants naturally hybridise and thus contribute to the debate going on around “variety”, “mutation” and of course eventually “evolution”.
In the late 1830s Darwin visited William Herbert, perhaps the leading botanical theorist of his day, at his vicarage in Yorkshire and was later to write that Herbert “was much surprised … how true some sorts of Hollyhocks bred, even when growing close to other varieties. I have [also] found this to be the case with some of the varieties, and cannot understand how it is possible.” This problem continued to nag away at Darwin for the next 20 years.
Of course the hollyhock could not escape the hybridiser forever. After Glenny and Maund another serious call for “improvement” came from William Chater writing in The Florist for 1848. If you’re a hollyhock fanatic you might recognise his name because it still attached to the most popular double strain of the flower.
Chater was a nurseryman from Saffron Walden who grew a wide range of plants including, of course, hollyhocks and had been trying to cross them. Another local man Charles Barron had also been growing and crossing hollyhocks for years and had a large collection but still lacked good varieties of most pure colours. In about 1845 Barron proposed that Chater buy his stock and continue his attempts trying crossings between the two collections,
One of Chater’s nursery staff writing as “Hollyhock Amateur” in the Journal of Horticulture and Cottage Gardener in 1868 recalled going to Barron’s to dig and transport the plants, then “the following year we began to impregnate their flowers with some of our own varieties. Within three years we had several new and distinct varieties.”
Chater’s 1847 seed catalogue was revolutionary because it offered for the first time, reliably double hollyhocks with particularly large flowers. Amongst them was a groundbreaking new variety which Chater named ‘Charles Barron,’ in honour of the other grower. The new cultivar was buff-salmon in colour with double or near double flowers, and its parentage was discussed at length in the Journal of Horticulture. While it did not come true from seed, it could be easily propagated from cuttings. Its progeny continued to show signs of improvement, were more dependably perennial, and “of better form, more substance in the petal, and more decided in colour”.
Chater was happy to share growing advice and went on develop better varieties in all the other colours, and in effect gradually create an entirely new double flowered strain of hollyhock. By 1850, he was exhibiting his Hollyhocks at the Royal Horticulture Society, and won a Banksian Medal.
Chater’s success attracted the attention of Charles Darwin. It’s clear from Darwin”s correspondence , much of which has been digitised, that although he had continued to conducting his own hollyhock experiments he was no closer to an answer to the questions he had discussed with William Herbert.
Darwin even bought seed from 3 German companies writing that “it is really marvellous how true they come to even slightest shades of colour.”Now he decided to ask both the German nurseries and 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.”
Still no definitive answer emerged. So Darwin wrote to the Journal of Horticulture in May 1861 asking the same questions but also recruited Charles Crocker, “lately foreman at Kew & a very good observer” to help him with further experiments. Unfortunately most nurserymen were so fixated on double flowered varieties that they destroyed those plants with single blooms, so it took Crocker two years before he ” succeeded in getting above two dozen genuine single Hollyhocks from a friend’s friend in Yorkshire.
Unfortunately only 9,000 of more than 14,000 Darwin letters have yet been digitised so I don’t know the precise outcome of the correspondence or experiments BUT Darwin certainly used the results in his book Variations, published in 1868, which includes references to Hollyhocks. Even then he did not know the answer.
After Variations an article about hollyhocks appeared in the Journal of Horticulture & Cottage Gardener on 20th August 1868 and led to a somewhat acrimonious debate. “Hollyhock Amateur” wrote that “it is to Mr. Chater we owe all our improvements in the Hollyhock.” Specifically, he states that Chater’s plants “are of better form, more substance in the petal, and more decided in colour” than those of any other nurseryman.
In the next issue, some else staked a claim for Charles Barron: “he and he alone, was the originator of the past and present improved race”. And if that wasn’t enough William Paul, another eminent Victorian nurseryman argued that it was he who done the pioneering work. Yet another correspondent, intervened arguing that “better Hollyhocks were to be found in Scotland before either Mr. Chater or Mr. Paul were known as growers of that flower.”
There was of course no way of knowing who it actually was, but Chater wins by being the best publicist, or rather by later selling his nursery to a good publicist who promoted the double strain that still carries Chater’s name. But in a way it didn’t matter because the debate fizzled out, and so did the popularity of the hollyhock.
The story has resonance today because the reason for its fall from grace was disease.
In 1873, a pathogenic fungus –Puccinia malvacearum – began to attack hollyhocks. Originally from South America it had spread first to Australia before arriving in Europe. Usually known now as rust disease, it progressively weakens the plant, disfiguring its leaves with rusty/orange pustules. These spread rapidly and can easily overwinter. There was no known cure apart from destruction of affected plants.
When the disease arrived Chater was listing 117 named varieties of perennial hollyhocks, mostly of his own breeding but within a season or two they had all succumbed. Plants could not be propagated by any means — cuttings, grafts, overwintering under glass — without transmitting rust. The only hope, although it was not initially realised, was to grow from seed as the rust does not develop in young plants until the second year of growth.
Richard Dean a regular visitor to the nursery wrote in 1903 that “it fell to the melancholy lot of William Chater in his old age to witness the almost or quite entire loss of varieties of high quality he had the good fortune to raise…. I used to make an annual visit to the veteran, and the manner in which he sorrowed over losses he could not prevent was pitiable to see.”
Chater’s only hope was in saving seed in the hope of being able to restart later. Amazingly this worked and by 1880 The Florist and Pomologist carried an article which said that he had seedlings for sale of “good stock,” and free from “any taint of the dread disease” but they had to be treated as biennials, and would if left after their flowering in the second year probably succumb to rust as well.
Despite Carter’s attempts to revive the sale of hollyhocks, nurserymen by and large dropped them from their stock, and amateurs avoided them too. It took until the end of the century for there to be much of a recovery in the popular mind, and by that time William Chater was dead. George Webb who took over his nursery continued to try and revive the plant’s fortunes concentrating entirely on the double pom-pom-laden spikes which followed the guidelines laid down by Glenny and his fellow determinists. Webb exhibited and lectured about hollyhocks but only ever showed or talked favourably about doubles.
Yet somehow hollyhocks had made an impact on children’s authors and illustrators and, unlike its garden popularity, that has never gone away.
But it was not just rust that was a problem. William Robinson had taken against the florist’s hollyhock as he did with many other “over-improved” flowers. In an article in The Garden in 1903 he wrote the blooms were “much too round and tight and full of petals. In many cases also, the spike is much too crowded . . . In obedience to a false ideal, the florist’s Hollyhock has been pushed beyond [its point of supreme beauty], and is no longer so good a thing in a garden as many a chance seedling that has no claim to good breeding.”
Richard Dean tried to take Robinson on arguing that “The single Hollyhock, like the poor, will always be with us; it is a weed in the garden, seeding itself freely and never lacking progeny. The double Hollyhock must not be thrown aside.” But it really was too late.
It’s not until the 1930s that the hollyhock began to make its slow way back in to the respectable garden, and even today its rare to see them used extensively in “grand” planting schemes where they would generally need to be labour-intensively individually staked. Perhaps they are victims of horticultural class wars as much as rust, but they have not lost their popularity with children or with gardeners who like something easy to grow!
Class distinction might explain why Emma Townsend thought they were the “Laura Ashley curtains of the gardening world”. Most of us would probably understand her sentiment even if we don’t share it. She went on in the same mode say that hollyhocks were “like a tattered copy of Jilly Cooper’s Riders” but “still provide a spectacle that is seductive with delight, if you just give them a chance..[and] “are properly fabulous.” I’m sure the ladies in these Keith Arnatt photographs would agree. I certainly do!