The inspiring colorful arrows of the hollyhock

Hollyhocks have had a great year, at least every time I grow them or see them. They have overthrown supposed wisdom. I love their big colored arrows at the end of July. They fill in the gaps, add height, and come with associations in art, poetry, and history that enhance what gardeners can see in them. More and more forms and species are offered for sale. The race for the ideal hollyhock is not over.

In Britain, hollyhocks were first mentioned in the 1440s in a text titled The feat of gardening but they had arrived much earlier. They are not native flowers. In France, they are still known as hollyhocks, derived from overseas, or pink flowers from overseas. Legends connect them to returning Crusaders, even to Eleanor, wife of our Edward I, a visitor to the Holy Land.

Their English name has nothing to do with prickly holly or the lower legs of horses. It derives from “saint” and “hock,” a Middle English word which meant mauve. The holiness could relate to an origin in the Holy Land, but it could reflect the supposed medicinal powers of the plant. The main use of hollyhock leaves and flowers is now culinary. They are surprisingly tasty in salads.

The most well-known hollyhocks grow to about 6 feet tall, but fit well in small gardens. They deposit a long main taproot and can anchor themselves in gravel or under walls. Although they like to make secondary roots, they
also grow in narrow beds. Some of the best in my comfort zone are rooted between the front wall of a local pub and its adjacent sidewalk. They have ignored social distancing and display their flowers openly, without a mask.

“Roses Trémières” by Berthe Morisot (1884) © Musée Marmottan Monet, Académie des Beaux-Arts, Paris / Christian Baraja SLB

The height adds to gardens in laterally confined spaces. Hollyhocks have been adding beauty for over a century, especially in this sentimental object, the cottage garden. In the 19th century, artists painted them next to the doors of thatched cottages, places where it was assumed that a “good wife” with a cap lived. Maybe she grew them because they were medicinal, but I guess she found out that they appeared anyway. Once someone else plants them, they seed freely.

I might be in the minority, but this year my hollyhocks are relatively free from rust, the disease that plagues many of them. It is spread by airborne spores and causes the leaves of a hollyhock to develop yellow spots, then turn brown before the entire plant dies. Experts now say rust reproduces quickly on hollyhocks during wet summers, but this year’s cool, wet June and early July didn’t rust mine.

I remember Christopher Lloyd telling me that he could never grow hollyhocks on his heavy soil at Great Dixter, when I had no problem in dry soil. Nothing, I think, has changed except the so-called wisdom.

Rust is still a threat, and no member of the Chemical Squad has an answer. Removing infected leaves does not stop it. The two best antidotes on the market are Copper Mixture, from Vitax, and Provanto Fungus Fighter Plus. The first should be applied before rust develops in midsummer. The latter should be sprayed on the leaves which are starting to show spots.

Spraying should be repeated at regular intervals, but it is worth it. Last year, in a bad year for rust, I didn’t have any. I had healthy bees and white cabbage butterflies on the hollyhock flowers.

When I see happy hollyhocks, I conjure up non-chemical images in my mind. Some are from paintings by great artists, but others are from life and death in the prehistoric past. In the 1950s, archaeologists found hollyhock pollen in the Shanidar cave in Iraq. It was mixed with the bones of the Neanderthals, our first human parents. Its presence has been interpreted as evidence of a funeral rite in which Neanderthals placed hollyhock flowers among their dead.

“The Hollyhock Man” became a popular nickname for one of our distant ancestors and in the 1960s Neanderthals were repackaged as the first flowered people in history. They weren’t just waiting to play in the backline of an austere English football team from the former First Division. They were able to plan and take care of others when the final whistle sounded.

Double Flowered Chater Hollyhock

Double-flowered Chater hollyhock © GAP Photos / Howard Rice

I doubted this ritual theory. In the cave, the pollen came from a local species of Alcea, which was neither tall nor double-flowered. He could have blown into the cave by accident and joined the dead there without the planning of a Neanderthal. In the late 1990s, the hollyhock man was viewed with scientific skepticism.

In 2016, however, a British team that had returned to investigate Shanidar Cave found a cluster of Neanderthal bones adjacent to earlier finds and impressed pollen in their company. The full analysis has yet to be released, but the once skeptical leaders of this research are fairly confident that the presence of the pollen was indeed an organized intervention.

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At the end of July, I become a hollyhock man, picking the flowers, although for ornament, not for the dead. My best hollyhock is not a double flowered variety, but a light and airy species that was named after a resemblance to cannabis leaves. It is now called Althea armeniaca, reflecting its homeland, not its green-fingered leaves.

I highly recommend it. The stems can grow to at least 6 feet but remain light and airy, bearing small pink flowers that rarely need support. He loves my dry soil, never catches rust, and gives August an unusual floral elegance. Neanderthals in the Cotswolds would protrude and approve.

The most famous hollyhocks are those from a rose, Althea rosea. In the early 1880s, William Chater made famous his line of double-flowered hollyhocks. Various forms of Chater can still be purchased, and Thompson and Morgan are offering 15 garden-ready Chater hollyhocks for £ 12.99 plus delivery, available in the UK only, a good buy for flowering next year (thompson-morgan.com). Plant them in the sun, not in the shade, and wait.

Chater was not the first double. In the 1880s, hollyhocks were memorable in the impressionist paintings of Berthe Morisot, whose best hollyhocks are in the Marmottan Monet Museum in Paris. Double flowers had an even older artistic pedigree. They appear in beautiful rococo paintings by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, intended for the walls of an entire living room.

'The Progress of Love' by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (c 1790-91)

“The Progress of Love” by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (c. 1790–91) © Joe Coscia Jr

In 1771, Fragonard undertook, for the tedious Madame du Barry, mistress of Louis XV, to work on four paintings, which would be entitled “The Progress of Love”. She sent them away. The French Revolution intervenes, but from the 1790s, Fragonard takes up this non-revolutionary series by adding 10 more paintings until the dating story elapses from the first meeting of two lovers, enhanced with a rose , passing through their meeting in a walled garden to the woman dreaming at noon, perhaps in vain, perhaps not.

Fragonard planned the series for his cousin’s villa in Grasse, where the long, slender hollyhock panels had to fit into the narrow spaces of the living room. Remarkably, these superb paintings remained invisible to foreigners until 1858. They then caused a sensation among the public. In 1898 they were put up for sale and bought by John Pierpont Morgan, Hollyhocks and all. When Morgan died, Henry Clay Frick bought them and gave them a new room, which they continue to occupy at the Frick Museum in New York.

The hollyhocks on the panels are double flowered. From Neanderthals to thief barons, these flowers have such a stature. Extend it by growing them in your own sunny garden.

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