This flower may look very like the one in my last post.
But wait. Check out the leaves. This is a fig-leafed hollyhock, a different variety from all the hollyhocks we have discussed before.
Then check out the edges of the flowers: they’re pinked. Just another of the mutations hollyhocks seem to specialize in.
This plant is probably some hybrid of Alcea ficifolia (fig-leafed hollyhock) and Alcea rosea (all the other hollyhocks we’ve been looking at in this series). I’ve never grown the species version of Alcea ficifolia, but two sources tell me it has pale yellow flowers. (Maybe Chater used some ficifolia blood in the flower that became ‘Peaches ‘n’ Dreams’.)
Since hollyhocks seem to be given to variation, a lot of interbreeding has probably gone on over the years, with human help or without it. (Remember the bees I talked about a couple of posts ago? They are the ones who are responsible for most of the hollyhock breeding down the centuries.) Wuv’n Acres has a Black Cherry fig-leafed hollyhock, plus a multicolored mix of fig-leafed hollyhocks called ‘Happy Lights’. Select Seeds also carries ‘Happy Lights’, among other hollyhocks which include another species, Alcea rugosa.
Alcea rugosa is rumored to be a longer-lived perennial than the rosea types. (It’s also rumored to be from Russia, and since I read about this in the Plant Delights catalogue as well as another source, I’m willing to accept that. Provisionally.) Presumably it has wrinkled leaves, since that’s what ‘rugosa’ means. According to Plant Delights, it’s 6-7 feet tall, has typical Alcea rosea foliage, and blooms “all summer with large 4-inch single buttery-yellow flowers.” It’s also supposed to be more disease-resistant than other varieties.
The last species I’ve heard of is Alcea setosa, another one with yellow blooms. I don’t know of any more detailed descriptions or pictures of this type. Just the name and the yellow flowers.
All right. These are little-known varieties of hollyhocks (and you might rightly say that, after reading this, you still know very little about them).
What are the little-known uses of hollyhocks? I’ve already discussed how hollyhocks have been used for food and medicine. But did you know they were once under consideration as a fiber crop plant?
In 1821, 280 acres of land near Flint (England) were sown with hollyhocks, in order to use the fiber of stems like hemp or flax. Since cotton was very fashionable as dress material in the early 1800s, it was a major import crop for England at that time. I’d guess that this was an attempt to produce fiber locally and reduce dependency on cotton shipments from India and the southern U.S. Something along the lines of modern attempts at reducing dependency on foreign oil by producing local power.
In fact, hollyhocks are related to cotton (Gossypium herbaceum), though, of course, we get cotton from the fluffy innards of the seedpods, not from the stalks of the plant.
In any case, hollyhock fiber was not a success with 1821 technology. It might be possible today, given that we have created fibers out of bamboo and wood. Maybe it’ll be the next designer material.
The Great Hollyhock Experiment wasn’t entirely futile. In the process, the growers discovered that hollyhock flowers produced a blue dye, “as good as indigo”—the best blue dye at the time. Since indigo requires a lot of time-consuming and smelly processing (hint: large fermenting vats are involved), I was a little surprised that nobody followed up on the possibilities of dyeing with hollyhock flowers, which would not have needed nearly so much processing. Especially since indigo was another one of the big cash crops of the era. (It was grown in the southern U.S. on big plantations that depended on slave labor, much like cotton, tobacco, and rice.)
Maybe the experimenters were so discouraged and discredited that they didn’t have the means or energy to pursue it further. Maybe hollyhock flower dye really wasn’t as good as indigo. We’ll probably never know.
We humans have helped hollyhocks grow and travel, and give them a multitude of names and uses. But hollyhocks are clearly capable of changing, spreading, and thriving without us.
Alice M. Coats, Flowers and Their Histories, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1956, 1968
Plant Delights catalogue, spring 2009
Hollyhock seed and plant sources: