Alcea rosea (Hollyhock)

Hollyhocks, from the Mallow family (Malvaceae), are a beloved and common garden plant, with their tall, sometimes eight foot stalks and distinctive blooms that have an exuberant and yet soft quality. They are annual or short-lived perennials and have a magical quality. For many cultures, hollyhock have symbolized the circle of life, with flower wreaths placed on mummies in ancient Egyptian burials. The name hollyhock may derive from an English Anglican cleric and natural historian, William Turner in the 16th century, naming the plant ‘holyoke,’. This could refer to the plant arriving in Europe from the Holy Land and/or sacred associations with the plants’ uses. There are around 60 species in the genus Alcea, which derives from the Greek altho meaning to heal. Diascorides wrote Althea can cure many diseases, while Maimonides wrote that the herb was known in Maghrib in northwestern Africa as the ‘rose of prostitutes’.

In 1782, Thomas Jefferson wrote about his hollyhocks in his chart, A Calendar of the Bloom of Flowers from Monticello. He also grew black hollyhocks, which were also found in Europe as early as 1629. In Victorian England, hollyhocks were grown next to privies, evidently making it easy to identify the spot so ladies wouldn’t have to ask. Fairies are said to make skirts of hollyhock flowers. The plant is edible, and in the 1800’s hollyhock sap was made into candies.

Elizabeth Oriel 2022