Dear Readers, if there is any plant that shouts ‘English Country Garden’ louder than the hollyhock, I have yet to find it. This stand of plants in Dorchester, close to Dad’s nursing home, was abuzz with bumblebees, who were rolling about in the pollen like puppies. At first glance the flowers remind me very much of those of the mallow, which is not surprising because hollyhocks belong to the same family, the Malvaceae.
The most commonly domesticated hollyhock, Alcea rosea, came originally from south-western China, and has been grown in the UK since at least the 15th Century. It is thought that it was given its name by the herbalist William Turner, who called it the holyoke. The name comes from the Middle English ‘holy‘ (meaning ‘blessed’) and the Anglo Saxon word ‘hoc‘ meaning ‘mallow’. It is unclear whether the plant was brought to England as an ornamental, or because of its medicinal properties – the genus name ‘Alcea‘ comes from the Greek word Alceos, meaning ‘to cure’. Like many members of the mallow family, the hollyhock was believed to have emollient qualities and was used for everything from sore throats and bladder inflammation to soothing the chapped and cracked hooves of horses.
One subspecies that may have been imported specifically for its decorative properties, however, was the ‘black’ hollyhock, Alcea rose nigra. Plants with flowers this dark were rare, and I imagine that a specimen would have been quite a talking point. The earliest record of this plant is from 1629, and hollyhocks in general were very popular right up until the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Sadly, a rust fungus that affects hollyhocks spread from South America to affect the plants worldwide, and the plant more or less ceased to exist in English gardens until the 1930’s, when it became popular again. Now it is a favourite in many gardens, both in Dorset (where I was positively tripping over them) but also in East Finchley and roundabouts. It is rather splendid, but am I alone in also finding it an untidy plant? It often seems to have crispy, browning leaves and is more often lopsided than not. Still, I can forgive it anything because of the enthusiasm with which it is approached by the aforementioned bumblebees, who seem to go into a kind of ecstasy in the flowers. My ‘Gardening for Wildlife‘ book advises staking the plant and growing it in moist but well-drained soil (always a tricky combination to pull off).
As usual, my book recommends avoiding any double-flowered hollyhocks, amusing as they look with their puffball flowers. One double variety, ‘Chater’s Double’, was developed by the eponymous Chater in Essex in the 1880’s ( and I am very indebted to the ‘Harvesting History‘ website for all this fascinating information). Amazingly, this variety is still available and a packet of seeds from Marshalls will put you back only £1.99. However, do grow some more ‘straightforward’ hollyhocks as well. The bees will thank you.
In the West Country, your hollyhock leaves may be munched upon by the caterpillar of the mallow moth (Larentia clavaria), a rather understated but nonetheless elegant moth. Like many British moths, this species needs to be looked at closely to appreciate how beautiful the different bands of colour are, and how they help the moth to camouflage itself.
The caterpillar is one of the usual little green critters, but I’m sure it would be worth a look next year if you have hollyhocks in the garden. The adult moth flies from August right through to November if the weather is mild enough.
Incidentally, there are about 60 species of hollyhocks belonging to the genus Alcea, all of them from Europe or Asia. There is a single hollyhock species in North America known as the streambank wild hollyhock (Iliamna rivularis), and very pretty it is too.
‘Our’ hollyhock was, and is, a popular garden plant in North America, however. The Living History Farms website tells me that hollyhocks were often grown near the outhouse in Victorian times, so that ladies wouldn’t have to ask for the toilet but could simply look for the hollyhocks. The same source tells me that Thomas Jefferson was very partial to hollyhocks, and grew some in his garden at Monticello (or rather, his gardeners did).
In Japan, a hollyhock flower was incorporated into the seal of the Tokugawa shogunate, who ruled the country from 1603 to 1867. The plant still has resonance as a cultural symbol today. There is a football team known as the Mito Hollyhock, whose seal shows three stylised ‘hollyhocks’ surrounded by a dragon. There is some discussion over whether the plant shown is actually a hollyhock, and I must admit that I am struggling to see the resemblance to the flowers, though maybe what is being portrayed is the leaves.
There is, however, a hollyhock festival (Aoi Matsuri) which is held in Kyoto every year. It dates back to the sixth century BCE, and is thought to have originated as a response to a series of natural disasters and epidemics. A lavish procession, decorated with hollyhock leaves (thought to ward off natural disasters) wends its way through the city to two shrines, where respects are paid to the deities. The event also features horse archery, which drew such huge crowds in the seventh century that the display was banned for a time. There are also some very impressive floats covered in hollyhock flowers.
Hollyhock petals, especially those of the darker varieties, are said to be useful as dyes, so for this I turn to the Wooltribulations website, which has been a source of fascinating information before. The author certainly has a lot of fun with the flowers, both from her own plants (which are not as cooperative as they might be) and with some donated by a friend. She mentions that an Indian article on dyeing with hollyhock used ultrasound rather than heat to get the colour to ‘take’, which is a fascinating idea. Suffice to say that a whole range of hues were produced, including this absolutely lovely lavender-blue. If anyone is going to tempt me to plant hollyhocks, or to try dyeing, it would be this lady.
As you might expect, hollyhocks were a favourite with Victorian era painters. Here is a delightful portrait by Charles Courtney Curran, from 1902. This looked so English that I was startled to find that Curran was actually an American. That’ll teach me to make assumptions.
And here is another painting, this time by Frederick Carl Frieseke, an American Impressionist painter who spent most of his time in France. He lived for many years in Giverny, though he was not a friend of Monet, and said that if he was influenced by anyone, it was Renoir. The woman with the Japanese parasol is probably modelled upon his wife.
But I think that I actually like this painting, by Danish painter Anthonore Christensen (1849 – 1926), is probably my favourite. The artist has made the flowers the stars of the show, and she has a delicate style which made her one of the leading floral ‘portrait painters’ of her time. The best botanical painters not only observe closely, but also seem to bring out the ‘personality’ of the plants that she depicts. I feel as if I know these hollyhocks, with their buds bursting and their leaves starting to turn brown.
And now, lovely readers, for a poem. How much do I love this? Really a lot. I remember hearing a tale from a birdwatcher friend of mine, who told me that if you put on red lipstick, and filled your mouth with sugar water, hummingbirds would come and kiss you (not in the UK obviously, where you’d be waiting for a very long time). It always sounds rather unhygienic, particularly for the poor hummingbirds, but this work, by Galway Kinnell, reminded me of the scenario. I hope you enjoy it, and forgive the fact that its relationship to hollyhocks is strictly tangential.
Telephoning In Mexican Sunlight
Talking with my beloved in New York I stood at the outdoor public telephone in Mexican sunlight, in my purple shirt. Someone had called it a man/woman shirt. The phrase irked me. But then I remembered that Rainer Maria Rilke, who until he was seven wore dresses and had long yellow hair, wrote that the girl he almost was "made her bed in his ear" and "slept him the world. " I thought, OK this shirt will clothe the other in me. As we fell into long-distance love talk a squeaky chittering started up all around, and every few seconds came a sudden loud buzzing. I half expected to find the insulation on the telephone line laid open under the pressure of our talk leaking low-frequency noises. But a few yards away a dozen hummingbirds, gorgets going drab or blazing according as the sun struck them, stood on their tail rudders in a circle around my head, transfixed by the flower-likeness of the shirt. And perhaps also by a flush rising into my face, for a word -- one with a thick sound, as if a porous vowel had sat soaking up saliva while waiting to get spoken, possibly the name of some flower that hummingbirds love, perhaps "honeysuckle" or "hollyhock" or "phlox" -- just then shocked me with its suddenness, and this time apparently did burst the insulation, letting the word sound in the open where all could hear, for these tiny, irascible, nectar-addicted puritans jumped back all at once, as if the air gasped.
Photo One by By Øystein Hellesøe Brekke – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15171329
Photo Three by By Donald Hobern – originally posted to Flickr as Larentia clavaria, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5160420
Photo Four by J. Pohjoismäki – http://wibe.ath.cx/hyonteiset/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=16788, Copyrighted free use, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9568572
Photo Five By Unknown – http://www.nps.gov/archive/yell/slidefile/plants/mallowfamily/Page.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4028334
Photo Six by By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15020160
Photo Seven by By Japanexperterna, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33739999