Many of the garden plants in the United Kingdom of today have their roots in the 14th century, when farm serfs who survived the Black Plague began building homesteads with cottage gardens. Ornamental plants made it into the landscape if, like primrose or lavender, they had a culinary or medicinal use, or fragrance to mask the odors of medieval life. Forgotten though their history may be, these plants still grace gardens across the United Kingdom with their color, scent and form.
The image of tall--five- to nine-foot--colorful hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) against a white cottage garden fence is familiar to millions of gardeners. In medieval times, hollyhocks provide edible leaves, roots and seedpods, says the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension's horticulture agent Bonnie Ennis. Today they are available in dozens of striking cultivars like Peaches 'n' Dreams, with heavy spikes of double, pink-tinged peach blooms. Hollyhocks are staples at the backs of sunny perennial borders across the United Kingdom. As biennials, they produce only leaves and roots the first year after planting. They bloom and set seed before dying in their second. Allowed to self-sow, they will produce new, vigorous plants year after year.
Perennial yellow loosestrife provided medieval relief from gnats and flies, according to the Botanical Dermatology Database. It also made a yellow hair dye. Standing more than three feet high and up to two feet wide, it has downy, oval, three-inch leaves that hold their green color well over the entire gardening season. Erect spikes of brilliant yellow, cup-shaped blooms appearing between June and September make it a good choice for the backs of perennial borders. Spreading quickly in moist soils, it's also an attractive bog garden plant. Happiest in partial shade, this loosestrife handles a wide range of soils.
Early cottage gardeners wove spicily scented apothecary rose (Rosa gallica maxima) into ornamental headpieces for weddings and other celebrations. They also used it in rose water. This rose has been growing in the United Kingdom since the 13th century, according to the Royal Horticultural Society. It was the symbol of the great House of Lancaster, and one of the two roses--with the White Rose of York--that gave the Wars of the Roses their name. Many of today's hybrid roses are descendants of this plant.
Standing between 3 and 4-feet high, apothecary rose is a mounding, densely-leaved shrub. Its semi-double deep pink to red flowers bloom once in mid-summer. They appear brighter against the background of the rose's dark green foliage. Bright red rose hips continue the display late into the season. Largely disease-resistant, apothecary rose may develop mildew. It adapts well to partial shade and infertile soil. (References 1, 4, and writer's notes)