Hollyhocks (Alcea spp.) Part 1: Origins and Containers
The dramatic Alcea rosea nigra is only one face of the hollyhock.
Lately, I’ve been pulled in by the incredible variety of hollyhock shapes and colors Even the leaves can vary, depending on the type of hollyhock. This six-part series will take a close look at some of the hollyhocks I know personally, as well as hollyhock background, uses, symbolism, and culture.
Hollyhocks are often discussed—and even sold–en masse, with varieties and colors and cultivars lumped together. They deserve better. They are beautiful, of ancient lineage, medicinal, and at least somewhat edible. And their usefulness goes even further: they’ve been pressed into service for making and dyeing cloth, not to mention screening outhouses.
If you check sources, you will find many authoritative opinions on where hollyhocks come from. Unfortunately, a lot of these opinions will be different. Syria, Palestine, the Middle East in general, India, southern Europe, and China are some of the contestants. And the winner is…China, because it is mentioned by a more than one reliable source, and details about its uses and cultivation in China are given. Because Maureen Gilmer adds that there are pictures of hollyhocks in 9th century Chinese art—documentary evidence. And because China makes sense as a starting place for a plant which seems to have followed the Silk Road.
If anyone knows of an authoritative source or three which mention the same country of origin for hollyhocks, I’d like to hear about it. Wherever they actually originate from, hollyhocks have made themselves at home in many parts of the world. And they’ve been helped by some of the most prolific seed-distributers: people who like them, and carry them long distances on the strength of it.
If you have sun, you can easily bring hollyhocks into your own part of the world. (You can sometimes persuade them to bloom in semi-shade, but it’s a chancy thing.) Once established, they settle in and re-seed themselves in the pleasantest way, making comfortable broad-leaved clumps that spread and grace a wall without ever invading. And they give an incredible show for very little care.
Hollyhocks also adapt beautifully to containers, as long as the containers are deep enough. But you must either have really serious supports (hollyhocks can go to six feet high, and they are not wispy plants), or something for them to lean on—a wall, a tree, shrubby plants.
In a container, hollyhocks are a great green groundcover for summer bulbs such as lilies, glads, and irises. They can also intermingle with cool-loving plants such as pansies and campanulas. When the heat comes on, the hollyhock will shade them and hopefully preserve them. When the weather cools, you can judiciously pluck a big hollyhock leaf or two so the pansies (and so on) can grow through for a fall and/or early-spring show.
If it freezes in your area, the hollyhock greens will die back—but they come back very early. Supposedly an annual, in my area, hollyhocks tend to be short-lived perennials, dying back each fall and springing up when the weather shows the slightest signs of warming the following year. Winters in my area are mild, by which I mean: it freezes, but not all the time, and we rarely have a hard freeze. In colder winters, some hollyhocks may be truly annual.
A less-known variety of hollyhock, Alcea ficifolia, is much more inclined to be perennial. This variety has been crossed with A. rosea types, and that may be why some strains of hollyhocks are more perennial than others. I’ll write more about Alcea ficifolia later in this series—but for now, I’m going to continue with the glories of the black hollyhock.
Later stage: after the pollination is over
Some might say that “black hollyhock” isn’t the right name for this flower. A gardening friend of mine remarked that these hollyhocks were eggplant-colored—which is exactly right. One cultivar name I’ve heard for this variety (or something very like it) is ‘Black Watchman’; I suppose ‘Eggplant’ would be a little less glamorous. Me, I just bought the seeds as Alcea rosea nigra. In a way, this is the silliest name of all: it parses out like this: Alcea– from a Latin word meaning “wholesome” or “healing”. Rosea – red (actually red-purple, the color of ancient roses). Nigra – black. Altogether: Healing red-purple plant that’s black.
My 1947 Sunset Flower Garden Book says that if you cut back the stems, you can get a second flowering in late summer and early fall. But I need some of the seed to ripen, so I can pass it around to friends (one of the best ways to leave a nice legacy and incidentally make sure you have a supply yourself, should your own plants give up the ghost). So some of my flower stalks, at least, are not going to be cut back until the seed ripens.
Ripe seedpods are one of the pleasures of hollyhocks, in their own quiet way as pleasing as the flowers themselves. I’m certainly not the first to notice this: Gerard (late 1500s) and Crispin de Pass (1614) said that the seed-pod was ‘like in shape unto small cheeses….from which this plant is called Keeskens cruyt by the Dutch.’
Next post: burgundy hollyhocks. And how they got into European and British gardens.
Mrs. C. F. Leyel, Officier de l’Academie Francaise, Fellow of the Royal Institute, Elixirs of Life, first pub. 1948 Faber and Faber; pb reprint 1987
J.L Hudson Rare Seed Supplement #2008-A
Dictionary.com, Random House and American Heritage dictionaries.
Maureen Gilmer, “Hollyhocks, an American Garden Staple”
Sunset Flower Garden Book, Lane Publishing Company, 1947