And now for a really important question, but about all I can take on during these dog days of summer: are hollyhocks Colonial or Colonial Revival? The hollyhocks were simply beautiful and characteristically statuesque at the Saint Gaudens National Historic Site when we stopped by on the way back from Vermont a few weeks ago and I started thinking about them. Hollyhocks don’t look like a particularly useful plant but they are on the cover of so many books on “Colonial” gardens published at the beginning of the twentieth centuy: they seem to be the very symbol of the Colonial Revival garden (along with the sundial and the arbor). So what’s the story, Colonial or Colonial Revival?
Hollyhocks in Cornish, NH and on the cover of early 20th centuy gardening books: Shelton (1906); Ely (1903); Bennett (1919); McCauley (1911); “Colonial” woman and hollyhocks in font of the John Ward House, Salem in a c. 1911 photo by Mary Harrod Northend; layout for a Colonial Garden from Colonial gardens; the landscape architecture of George Washington’s time (1932).
So as you can see, hollyhocks were a mainstay in the “old-fashioned” gardens of the Colonial Revival era, but were they actually revived? Were they also present in gardens from centuries prior? I think that the answer is a qualified yes: hollyhocks were both Colonial and Colonial Revival, but the hollyhocks of the earlier era were a bit different than that of the latter. When horticultural authors in the early modern England referenced hollyhocks (which they spelled in many different ways, believe me), they meant Althea officinalis or what we call Marsh Mallow today. Marsh Mallow is a great old plant that I used to have in my garden but it disappeared last year. All mallows were utilized for their soothing effects, and John Winthrop included them in his order for “garden seeds” dispatched to London in 1631. The hollyhock in particular seems to have been an Asian variety brought west in the wake of the Crusades, and while it is often said that the naturalist William Turner fashioned the name hollyhock (or holyoke) in his 1551 Newe Herball, it dates from the fourteenth century at the very least. Turner’s Herball contained woodcut illustrations copied directly from the lovely colored engravings of Leonhard Fuch’s De Historia Stirpium (1543), and he also followed Fuchs in giving hollyhocks the scientific name Malva hortensis. The Fuchs illustration is below: as you can see, it is definitely a familiar hollyhock, but noticeably smaller than our modern variety. And that’s what happened to the Hollyhock: it was improved through hybridization in the nineteenth century. Malva hortensis became Althea Rosea and ultimately Alcea Rosea. The Boston nurseryman John Breck, author of the influential The Flower Garden or Breck’s Flowers (1851), disdained the popular dahlia and promoted the humble hollyhock, as a great improvement has been made in this old-fashioned, ordinary flower, within a few years, that has brought it before the public under a new phase; and it now bids fair to become as popular as many other flowers have been when taken in hand by the florist. Breck was referring to the cross-breeding success of his colleague across the Atlantic, Saffron Walden nurseryman William Chater, who had produced double hollyhocks with large flowers, “of better form, more substance in the petal, and more decided in colour.” And thus the hollyhook took off, its success limited only by the onset of a rusty disease that is still with us, unfortunately.
Sixteenth- and nineteenth-century hollyhocks: Wellcome Images; George Baxter’s print of Valentine Bartholomew’s Hollyhocks (1857), Victoria & Albert Museum.
Another major factor in the increasing popularity of the hollyhock must have been the many artistic depictions appearing on both side of the Atlantic from the 1870s: painters of all artistic schools, from impressionism to realism, painted stunning and soaring hollyhocks, often in the company of women. I could include hundreds of such paintings in this post, but I’ve limited myself to just a few of my favorite works. I’ve started out with Ross Sterling Turner’s Hollyhocks from 1876 because he is a Salem artist, but it’s not as representative as a painting fom the very same year by another New England artist, Eastman Johnson. Girls and hollyhocks just go together! It’s no wonder that the garden writers of the next decades, among them so many women, favored them. Hollyhocks were also a framing device, as Childe Hassam demonstrated in his many depictions of his friend Celia Thaxter’s garden on the Isle of Shoals in the 1890s (reproduced in An Island Garden in 1894): they could define an entrance, a view, or even the gardener herself. My favorite depiction of hollyhocks is in Abbot Fuller Graves’ painting Portsmouth Doorway (1910) at the Peabody Essex Museum, but everybody else’s impressionist over-the-top hollyhocks with a woman-in-white work seems to be Frederick Carl Friesek’s Hollyhocks from the following year.
Ross Sterling Turner, Hollyhocks (1876), LA County Museum of Art; Eastman Johnson, Hollyhocks (1876), New Britain Museum of American Art; Childe Hassam, In the Garden (Celia Thaxter in her Garden) (1892); Smithsonian Museum of American Art; Abbot Fuller Graves, Portsmouth Doorway (1910), Peabody Essex Museum; Frederick Carl Frieseke, Hollyhocks (1911), National Academy of Design.