The Victor Hugo Garden - Deruchette's Garden III - The Victor Hugo in Guernsey Society
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'More a flower than a woman'

Her flowers, continued

Who is Déruchette?
More of Déruchette's flowers

Hollyhocks are usually grown as biennials. The name in English comes from ‘holy mallow’, probably in reference to their medicinal properties. They were introduced to England in the 15th century. The French name for hollyhock, la rose trémière, is a corruption of an original ‘rose d’outremer’, a ‘rose from beyond the sea’: they were thought to have been brought back to France from the Holy Land by the crusaders. An early poem by Victor Hugo in which he plays a game of trapping bumble-bees inside hollyhock flowers is no doubt a play on words, as hollyhocks are also known in France as ‘St James’ Staff’, the word for bumble-bee and pilgrims’ staff being the same, ‘bourdon‘. As hollyhocks do particularly well in Normandy, growing very tall and flowering all summer, it might be expected that they would flourish in Guernsey and be a favourite in the Norman island. They may have been grown by Hugo’s daughter, perhaps in her house at Villequier in Normandy, or by her husband’s family, good friends of the Hugos. 

The Agave americana, or ‘American aloe’ was, and still is, a spectacular Guernsey speciality. It was known as the Century Plant because it was believed it only flowered every 100 years. As Hugo himself found out when the Agave americana planted in 1860 at Hauteville House flowered in 1875, it flowers more often than that. Each crown of leaves has to be big enough to support the enormous inflorescence which can reach, as Hugo remarked, the height of a house.  The monocarpic crown dies but the plant produces many offsets and thus seems to live for ever. This plant is not closely related to the true Aloe and for many years was commonly misnamed. It hails from Mexico and Texas and needs dry warm weather to survive outdoors. 

Victor Hugo sent a celebrated letter of support while he was in Guernsey to the Mexican people who were fighting the French Empire in 1862 (several of the succulents in the urns on the gate posts hail from Mexico). The medicinal properties of the Aloe vera, a true aloe, also help to explain its symbolism of immortality, no doubt not lost on Hugo.