They thrive in the places where no one would think of planting them. The rough, dark green leaves lurk for a season, doing nothing much. Only in the second year does the plant show what it’s capable of, sending out spikes of wide, crumpled silk flowers which extend ever upwards as each flower fades.
You can find self-sown hollyhocks in many places in France but they seem to be particularly characteristic of the Île de Ré and the area around La Rochelle. Maybe the soil and climate here suit the plant particularly well. Maybe the local population are particularly tolerant of plants which choose their own place. Perhaps there’s a bit of both. Either way hollyhocks have a long history in cultivation and a long history of going their own way too. Native to the Middle-East and Central Asia, hollyhocks are said to have been brought to France and Britain in the 15th century by returning crusaders, earning their English name as holy hocks (or holy mallows). The common French name of rose trémière is simply a corruption of rose d’outremer or rose from overseas – a welcome flower from far away.
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I came away from the Île de Ré with a few hollyhock seeds in my pocket. Most of my Spittal garden would be too fertile for these plants that thrive on a lean diet and little water but I have a narrow strip of stony ground in mind…