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Wednesday, 01 August 2007 00:00

Hollyhocks and reminders of the past

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Sometimes it’s difficult to draw the line between the natural and cultivated plant worlds. As cultivated plants escape they often establish themselves as part of our regional flora. My wife, Elizabeth, and I are particularly fond of those old-fashioned garden flowers that persist about abandoned homesteads. Sometimes the only evidence of former habitation will be the mute testimony offered by the gray foundation stones of the cabin and a scattered array of old-fashioned garden flowers.

Some of the plants we’ve happened upon in such circumstances would include: grape hyacinth, star-of-Bethlehem, various rose species, periwinkle, ivy, foxglove, rose-of-Sharon, forsythia, tiger and day lilies, and ajuga. In a pamphlet titled “Old-Fashioned Garden Flowers” published by the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago in 1936, Donald Culross Peattie - a former resident of Tryon, North Carolina - listed some others: jonquils (a name often wrongly applied to daffodils), four o’clocks, cock’s comb, sweet William, bouncing bet (soapwort), primrose, and tansy.

When the early settlers boarded ships bound for the New World, it was usually the women who tucked away plants that would be useful or pretty and remind them of their far-away homelands once they had settled in the hinterlands. In addition to edible plants and those used as medicines, they also brought the garden flowers that we now label “old-fashioned.”

These old-fashioned plants were single-flowered with but one set of petals and tended to display but one true color. Today, alas, those honest plants have been revved up genetically by the modern horticultural industry and given fancy names like “Miss Painted Lady in the Virgin’s Bower.” (I made that one up, but you know what I mean.) In turn, you’ll pay a pretty penny for the double-flowered forms and the fancy names. To Elizabeth and my eyes these double-flowered forms often appear artificial and top-heavy, often clumsy looking when placed beside their simple originals.

One of our favorite old-fashioned garden flowers is the hollyhock (Alcea rosea). Growing up in the South, we always heard them called “hollyhawks,” but that’s not the dictionary spelling. The genus comprises about 60 species of flowering plants in the mallow family native to southwest and central Asia.

They were introduced into western Europe at an early date and subsequently made their way to the Americas.

Current hybrid varieties are double-flowered, top heavy, and tend to be darkish in color. We prefer the old-fashioned single-flowered pink or white forms. It’s difficult to keep hollyhocks from hybridizing in your garden, so pick an old-fashioned biennial hollyhock that you like and don’t plant any other forms.

Allow me to close out this homage to old-fashioned garden flowers with a few lines from Mabel Osgood Wright’s Flowers and Ferns in Their Haunts (1928). In a chapter titled “Escape From Gardens,” she wrote: “I do not know who built the Lilac House, or when or how the people who reared the stone chimneys that now stand ruined here and there for miles around (but) one thing is sure: women were in the homes (and) they all loved flowers. And from this race has sprung a half wild, shy plant race, which lingers for a time, at least, about the old house site, and then, according to strength and kind, wholly outlives tradition, and, mingling freely with the native growths is naturalized.”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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