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Roots Rx: All About Hollyhocks

Our companions throughout history, hollyhocks are beneficial in the garden and to our health. Learn about growing hollyhocks and try recipes for a tea and skin soother.

| Summer 2017

  • You'll find many different shades of heirloom hollyhocks.
    Photo by iStock/Solidago
  • Hollyhocks can become very tall, but with some support, they flourish.
    Photo by iStock/wwing
  • Bright pink hollyhocks ā€” or those of any color except black ā€” can be used to make yellow dye.
    Photo by iStock/Cathleen Abers-Kimball
  • The black-flowered 'Nigra' cultivar (Alcea rosea) was grown by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello.
    Photo by iStock/Kerrick
  • Most people successfully plant hollyhocks from seed.
    Photo by iStock/pailoolom
  • Hollyhock petals and leaves can be used in the "Hollyhock Soother for Skin and Hair" and "Hollyhock Tea" recipes linked in this article.
    Photo by iStock/YUCELOZBER

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.

Hollyhocks through History

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.

Hollyhocks for Health

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.



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