Photos and article by Donna Iverson
Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) are an old fashioned flower that haven’t lost their appeal. Can you walk by a stand of hollyhocks and not stop and stare? I can’t. In whatever garden or yard they are grown, they tower over the other flowers in summer. Only sunflowers can compete, and then not until August.
Hollyhocks, which are members of the Mallow family, evoke visions of old cottage gardens and maybe memories of Beatrix Potter’s book illustrations of Mr. McGregor’s garden in the Peter Rabbit adventures.
Hollyhocks are easily grown from seeds in the spring and may flower the first year but may not, as they are biennial. While staking isn’t necessary, they do better grown along a fence or wall for protection from gusty winds. They are short lived, lasting only two or three years but readily self-seed.
Hollyhocks can grow as high as nine feet tall and prefer a sunny location in moist rich ground. Water from below so as not to damage the tender blossoms which come in multiple colors including pink, white, violet, red and black. Unfortunately they are susceptible to a lot of pests, including leaf mites, beetles, slugs and powdery mildew. On the plus side, they attract beeswax, butterflies, and hummingbirds.
In herbal medicine, hollyhocks are a laxative and an emollient. In olden days, they were used to treat inflammation, bleeding gums, sore throats and bed wetting. They are non toxic to people and animals although leaves and stems may cause rashes on sensitive skin.
Hibiscus flowers are also edible. They were often found in the kitchen gardens of colonial New England. The colonists made Hibiscus tea from the flowers. There is a black flower variety called Nigra which is an heirloom plant once grown in the Monticello gardens of Thomas Jefferson. It is four hundred years old and is still a favorite of gardeners and botanists.
While there is one Hollyhock native to the Americas, the common variety grown in this country is native to China. It was discovered there in the 1400s by an Englishman named William Turner, who wrote the first Herbal book. He called it “Holyoke”