Or­na­men­tal and medic­i­nal, Hol­ly­hock is won­der­ful

Fiann Ó Nual­láin has moved from mal­lows as medicine to re­dis­cover the ben­e­fits of de­light­ful hol­ly­hocks

Irish Examiner - Property & Interiors - - In The Garden -

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.

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