Hollyhocks in Britain – ‘Roses trémières’ in France …

I’ve often tried to grow hollyhocks (alcea rosea) but with little success. And yet I’ve seen some growing eight feet high in places where you would think nothing would survive. For instance, against a high wall in full sunshine, their roots presumably finding water below a hard, arid, gravel surface.

Hollyhocks, Nassau Road, Barnes

The Anglo Saxon name was ‘holy-hoc’ or holy mallow. A plant from the Holy Land. Gerard, who wrote his Herbal in 1597 knew hollyhock as ‘Malva Hortensis’, part of the Malvaceae family, related to common mallow, rose of Sharon, lavatera and tropical hibiscus.

Hollyhocks were probably introduced to Great Britain in about 1573, although they are mentioned in a poem in a manuscript much earlier. Most likely they hailed from China, via the Silk Roads to Palestine. The seeds would have been brought to Britain during the Crusades.

In France they are known as ‘roses trémières’ – coming from ‘outremer’, meaning from ‘overseas’. Again, from China via the Middle East. The flowers range from shades of burgundy to scarlet red, pink, yellow and white.

Hollyhocks – painting by Caroline Elkington

Unfortunately, hollyhocks succumbed to a rust disease, which spread across Europe and cultivation was almost abandoned by the end of the nineteenth century. However, they have revived and are again an eye catching stalwart of English cottage gardens and even cityscapes. They seed themselves quite easily.

I found that mallow, a related shrub, also part of the Malvaceae family, symbolises health, love and protection. Mallow’s medicinal properties include guarding against TB and inflammatory diseases. It makes me happy to know that these shrubs have flowered magnificently in our front garden for over fifty years – a close cousin of hollyhocks with the same tendency to take on different colours. Another garden nearby has a beautiful blue one.

Mallow as a shrub
Like hollyhocks, mallows come in different shades and colours
Mallow – close up

A couple of years ago I was in Dieppe with my sister and brother-in-law. I’ve never seen such a profusion of ‘roses trémières’ and other glorious flowers, which border the shingle beach – as prolific as all the parked cars. Should they have been triffids, the cars would have been swallowed up. Yet another reason to visit Dieppe, with its castle, picturesque ‘centre ville’ and a house and garden designed by Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll nearby.

‘roses trémières’ by the beach, Dieppe

roses trémières’ in Dieppe – note the castle in the background
a bushel of scarlet ‘roses trémières’ by the sea
‘roses trémières’ Dieppe – toutes directions …
‘deux chevaux’ with ‘rosees trémièresbackdrop – Dieppe
Dieppe – the beach

Maybe hollyhocks flourish better in the sea air. Then what about the ones in Barnes? Well, the Thames is a few minutes away and is slightly salty …

Hollyhocks and ‘roses around the door’ spell out the epitome of English cottage gardens and cream teas – yet their origins are from so far afield.

Cuppa tea?

Just as I feed my mallow shrubs on tea leaves and coffee grounds, which come from plants that continue to grow thousands of miles away … yet coffee and tea are now staples of our daily lives. How would most of us manage without them?!

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