French Hollyhocks are not “French”
Hollyhocks awaken memories for people just like Proust’s Madeleines. My neighbor Kerry in Montana once said to me when she sees hollyhocks she is transported back to the streets of Helena Montana where she grew up. The hollyhocks would grow in every crack and corner and defined summer to her. Charlie from Seattle says « I remember the hollyhocks from the big country garden of my grandmother and the big city of my mother, they have such special memories associated with them. » Another Montanan, a cowboy poet named Wally McRae, wrote a poem about his grandmother’s “French” hollyhocks. For him hollyhocks bring back the memory of his grandmother’s need for beauty in the hard-knock landscape of eastern Montana. It is only as an adult that he realizes how important it is to have beauty and not just a useful food producing garden. In reading his poem I was curious as to why he called them “French” hollyhocks. Are they really French? And so I did some research.
One of the things Montana and France share are a plethora of hollyhocks. In France in the summer months there are hollyhocks in the cities and in the countryside, along roadsides and in gardens. There’s one in every crack and cranny growing up in the most unlikely places which are seemingly inhospitable. Spots so lonely that nobody, but Mother Nature could possibly have planted the seed. The French word is rose trémière. Trémière is a deformation of the word outremer, because the plants are not indigenous to France. They can also be called passerose or primerose. (Don’t be tempted to call hollyhocks primroses – that’s a faux ami.)
But these hollyhocks we are seeing all over are not “French”. It seems in the United States a French Hollyhock is a specific type of hollyhock with a specific color. Malva the French hollyhock is a perennial, different from true hollyhocks which are biennials.
One site says this.
“Kissing cousins to classic hollyhocks, French hollyhocks (common mallow or Malva Zebrina) has pale pink dimpled petals with showy violet tracery that bloom from the bottom to the top of the tall stems. The seedpods develop into little round flattened pods that look like small cheese wheels, giving rise to another name « cheese mallow. » Easy to grow, they bloom from midsummer to frost” – selectseeds.com
Another blogger mentions his neighbor who brought back seeds from a trip to France. “My neighbor Bill Stock has an amazing garden–30-year-old roses and towering hollyhocks grown from seed he brought from Monet’s garden after a visit to Giverny.” But they are not French either. In fact French hollyhocks are a bit hard to find in France. True hollyhocks, alcea rosa in Latin, are the definition of the cottage garden plants. These tall, stately, but friendly and informal flowers bloom for several months of summer in a wide variety of colors. Chances are they are the ones you’ve seen alongside a garden wall, in front of a cute cottage-style house, or gracing a fence. This old-fashioned pass-along plant has caught the hearts of many. Hence the Proustian memories.
The hollyhock plant is a biennial native to Turkey and other parts of Asia, but the one we know so well, probably came from China by way of Palestine during the Crusades. The name Hollyhock is believed to have derived from the Anglo-Saxon term, ‘holy-hoc’ or holy mallow – mallow being a common name given to all members of the althea family. The word, althea, comes from the Greek, altheo, meaning, to cure – a reference to the medicinal virtues of the plant. The plant was used for tuberculosis, bladder inflammations, soothing swollen horses’ feet. Now get ready for the ah ha moment… horse’s feet are called “hocks”. A hollyhock is horse feet relief from the Holy Land!
Hollyhocks were grown and valued in from Elizabethan days to the first half of the 19th century. A horticulturalist named Chater of Essex, England worked for decades on improvements to the plant and developed Chater’s Double in the 1880’s, one of the most popular hollyhocks of all time. In 1873, a rust disease began to attack hollyhocks and the cultivation of hollyhocks was all but abandoned by the end of the 19th century. 60 years later, Hollyhocks made a comeback, despite the rust that still attacks them. And today they come in all sorts of colors, double and simple flowers.
To conclude, the only French thing about French hollyhocks is that the word mallow comes from the French word mauve. So next time you come across a hollyhock plant and you see the brown finished flowers at the bottom stop and gather some seeds from the dried pods and throw them to the wind or carefully plant them (they grow on balconies too and make great privacy screens). Come back next year and you’ll have a treat and some memories.