Ornamental and medicinal, Hollyhock is wonderful
Fiann Ó Nualláin has moved from mallows as medicine to rediscover the benefits of delightful hollyhocks
This is the first year in 15 years that I haven’t been elbow-deep in preparing for or constructing a show garden or summer exhibition display.
It has given me some time to update my own garden which is more of a collection of experiments and a place to forage, than a garden per se. I have my usual herbs and veg on the go, but I’ve been editing the borders and refreshing some containers.
In the last few days, I have been sowing some seeds of Alcea rosea aka hollyhock. It is of a type — an old cottage garden favourite — that has perhaps gone out of fashion in the last few years if not recent decades. I grow for substance over style, for function over form, so I don’t care that is not trending on Instagram at the minute.
For me hollyhocks are part of my garden larder and I appreciate their medicinal history too. I had traditionally used mallow (Malva sylvestris) in my forage fayre and in my herbalism, but when I was researching deeper for the Holistic Gardener books, hollyhocks kept cropping up with all the benefits of mallow.
They are sometimes known as rose mallow and are in the mallow family. They provide more floral colour choices and are more controllable than mallow, so now I grow them each year to bloom May to October. Their edibility is often put down to crystallised flowers for cake decoration, but in fact they offer more. The young leaves in moderation can be utilised raw or cooked. I will admit it’s not a great texture and not to every taste bud, but it is an option for culinary experimentation. The roots yield a nutritious starch too and do feature in some Asian cuisine.
For me it is all in the flowers — for a cheery salad garnish, a petal tea or a syrup for pancakes and cordial. Before eating or rendering, it’s best to remove the centre stamen and any bitter greenery. Hollyhock’s healing potential, like its cut flower and garden ornamental aesthetic, comes in and out of fashion. Yet it may be one of our oldest medicines.
Hollyhock seeds have been found in the excavated graves of Neanderthal man — not currently known to have be keen gardeners or cut- flower enthusiasts — but known to have been buried with their medicines. Hollyhock flowers make a great emollient, demulcent, and a fine diuretic. The root is astringent and the seed is diuretic. A Swiss army knife herb for coughs and colds, inflammations internal and external, cuts and wounds, dysentery, fevers , detoxification and even high blood pressure.
Homo sapiens learned a lot from our Neanderthal cousins and we took advantage of this healing herb. Right down to today where it is still popular in herbalism for respiratory ailments and to treat kidney stones. Hollyhock’s healing heritage is not limited to humans, in fact, the ‘hock’ indicates its use in veterinary herbalism to reduce the swelling of horses’ hocks.
Hollyhocks are easy enough, they like a warm and bright position in the garden but one sheltered from winds. They prefer a well-drained soil within a ph range of 6.08.0. Classified as a biennial (and yes they will generally only leaf in the first year, with flowers following in the second year), they can last more than two years of a lifecycle or at least self-seed for an extended presence in your garden. You can divide after flowering or take basal cuttings in year two.
The seed generally germinates in about two to three weeks if provided with a near constant of 20C — maybe a bit longer if under an ad hoc (couldn’t resist) plastic bag propagator on your windowsill. Sowing now means you avoid having to acclimatise to the frosts as the plants will bulk up in late June to be planted out in July.
I mentioned earlier the extended colour palette and this year I am trying Alcea rosea ‘Nigra’ again. I first grew it 11-12 years ago for a Garden Heaven showgarden (in the days before Bloom), in a design entitled ‘The Chocolate Garden’ which was themed with all plants either tasting, smelling or looking like chocolate.
Nigra was not only tall at two metres but of a deep chocolate-maroon colouration in the right sunlight — so perfect. Some days it appears almost inky black and I’m experimenting with a black border this year. You don’t have to go dark, hollyhocks come in an array of pretty and even lurid colours.
And then there are doubles and heights to be played with. There is a wonderful double strain — Alcea rosea ‘Chater’s Double Mix’ (at Woodie’s now), a range of pom-pom types to match your frilliest peony in shades of white, yellow, pink, purple, and red. There is also a same-year flowering dwarf variety — Alcea rosea ‘Queeny’ — to 60cm with showy double blooms in a palette of yellow, lilac, purple, white, pink and crimson-red. Really stunning specimens to enliven any garden or allotment. Whatever the variety, slugs and caterpillars can be a nuisance.
Then there is something known as hollyhock rust (Puccinia malvacearum) — a difficult-enough-to-control fungus that disfigures the plant with yellow/ orange spots on the upper leaf surface, reddish- brown pustules on lower foliage.
It is airborne and reactive to high humidity and damp summers. Garlic and chamomile will only help, the stronger fungicides are often required.
You can, as a preventive, (odds improved at least), plant out with good spacing to avoid humidity and improve airflow and you can also water the soil, not drench the foliage.
Hollyhock’s healing potential, like its cut flower and garden ornamental aesthetic, comes in and out of fashion.