I remember hollyhocks in my grandfather’s garden. They were tall and pink, and there was something wistful about them — as if by sitting with them I could somehow hear the echoes of children at play from a time beyond imagination.
Eventually, I realized that my imagination wasn’t far from the truth. The hollyhock has long resided in the gardens of humanity and has watched us at play on nearly every continent. The name “holy” hock may have originated from the belief that the plant came to England from the Far East after the Crusades, but there’s stronger evidence that it came to Europe from China in 1573.
The common hollyhock in the garden (Alcea rosea) traveled all over the world during the Middle Ages because of its well-deserved reputation of being able to thrive in almost any climate and soil so long as it was planted in full sun. This is still true today. The plant is happy almost anywhere with the exception of waterlogged soils.
We can thank the European botanical craze of the 19th century for today’s wide variety of color. Hollyhocks can be found in varying shades of pink, red, peach, white, and even a deep violet or almost black color. We can also thank those gardeners for a lesson in seed saving. One of the most common problems with the otherwise hardy hollyhock is an airborne fungus called Puccinia malvacearum, or “hollyhock rust.” In the 1870s, the first major attack of rust hit the hollyhocks of Europe. At the time, virtually every garden had its own bed of these flowers. Sadly, rust caught some of the top breeders off guard, and they had only small lots of seeds saved. The affected plants standing in hothouses couldn’t be saved or reproduced vegetatively without spreading rust, so many wondrous crosses were lost. By the time enough seeds could become available to a distrustful public, the craze for hollyhocks had passed.
It took many years to earn the public’s trust again, and when that finally happened, the hollyhock had the opportunity to cross the Atlantic and take up residence in the kitchen garden of every self-respecting colonial New Englander. America would prove to be a blending of all the travels that hollyhock had done previously, as various cultures brought their traditional hollyhock seeds with them. How wonderful that no matter where a person landed in this new world, the hollyhock thrived.
The traditional single flowers borne upon a 5- to 9-foot stalk are beautiful, but as I began to look further into the history of the hollyhock, I felt certain that beauty couldn’t fully explain humanity’s fascination with this flower. No, the hollyhock’s beauty is more than skin deep.
All parts of the hollyhock plant have been used for natural remedies. In recent years, it has been revealed that the hollyhock bears more than a passing resemblance to its relative, common marshmallow (Althaea officinalis). In fact, the two plants share similar chemical constituents, and hollyhock can be used as an alternative, albeit one that’s not as strong.
Hollyhock has been used to provide gentle, soothing support for the gastrointestinal, respiratory, and urinary systems. It’s a popular addition to cough syrups, acting as an expectorant. Like its relative the hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa), hollyhock has also shown promise at improving circulatory health. As with marshmallow, many prefer to make their preparations of hollyhock as a cold infusion rather than expose its beneficial mucilage to high heat, which can damage it.
Proper ladies in the colonies were very fond of their hollyhock blossom tea. I sometimes feel it’s difficult to find a plant that colonists didn’t make into tea, but, in this case, they weren’t the only ones to do it. In Tibet, the roots and flowers are used for inflammation of the genitourinary (reproductive and urinary) system. An infusion of either the flowers or the leaves has traditionally been used for inflammation in the mouth or throat. Topically, a poultice of leaves, flowers, or both can be just the thing for pulling out the sting of an insect bite or a stubborn splinter.
At the table, hollyhock doesn’t disappoint either. In China, the flower is considered a delicacy. Here in the West, all parts of the plant are considered edible, but the flowers and leaves are used most often. Both can be added fresh to salads or sprinkled in soups as a pot herb.
The potential for hollyhocks to be used in the fiber industry has been explored, but that didn’t go very far. In the process, it was discovered that the stem’s inner bark, or bast, is great for making paper, and the root yields a mucilaginous substance called “sizing” that can be substituted for a protective filler or glaze.
Hollyhocks are also well-known dye plants. While they require a mordant, or fixative, all colors except black will make a yellow dye. The black-flowered hollyhock ‘Nigra’ (Alcea rosea) is an heirloom cultivar grown by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, and in 19th-century Germany, it was used to color wine. Black flowers yield anything from pale lavender to dark purple dye. Even the fresh leaves of black flowers are used to yield a green dye.
If you wish to add a bit of history to your garden with a special area for hollyhocks, the selection you have to choose from in growing hollyhocks is rather large. While the European plant breeders sought to encourage interesting coloration, today’s breeders are focusing on adapting the flower to compact spaces.
One of the most frustrating things about hollyhocks is that they’re so tall they become gangly and fall over if they aren’t given the correct spot or aren’t adequately staked. With a little planning and proper support, this doesn’t have to be a problem. Heirloom cultivars will most likely be single-flowered, but you can still find some older cultivars that are doubles, such as ‘Majorette Double Champagne’ and the ‘Carnival’ series from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.
Hollyhocks can be vegetatively reproduced, but most people plant them by seed with great success. Because they’re a biennial, it’s recommended to plant two years in a row so that you have a steady stream of blooms each July through September.
After your hollyhocks get going, they’ll happily reseed themselves, attracting butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds to your garden for years to come. It’s said that in some of the warmer climates in the United States, you can trim back your hollyhock before winter and encourage the plant to grow as a perennial. This is true, but it doesn’t result in the most vigorous of plants, and eventually they’ll die out anyway.
A quick search through old crafting books or the web will turn up a few great pictures of hollyhock dolls made with the flounce and whimsy of the hollyhock bloom. It seems logical that this flower would be used in a child’s toy. Hollyhocks feel like such an important part of summertime memories that it seems a shame not to have a corner of the garden dedicated to our longstanding relationship with this highly useful and beautiful flower.
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