Synonyms: Garden hollyhock
Scientific Name: Alcea rosea L.
Family: Malvaceae (mallow family)
Balkan Peninsula, possibly also Crete and Southern Italy.
Mucilages, and anthocyanin pigments in the flowers.
The hollyhock is a favourite with all who love cottage gardens. Its long, strong spikes, or spires, can reach a height of three metres – so the hollyhock can chat to the sunflower face to face. The three- to seven-lobed leaves and the stem of this perennial plant are furry with stellate hairs. Its large – up to 10 centimetres in diameter – funnel-shaped flowers grow as loose ears and brighten the garden from late summer and into the autumn in colder climes, while in warmer regions the hollyhock is in bloom from early spring onwards. Its buds open progressively from the bottom to the top of the stem. Many cultivated varieties are available, with colours varying from blackish-purple to pink, yellow and white, and single or double flowers. From every bloom projects a white, pentagonal tube-like structure. This is made up of fused stamens which surround the pistil, the female reproductive organ. The nearby pollen-covered anthers, the male part of the flower, give the stamen column a soft, fluffy appearance. Bumblebees love these bountiful flowers, whose petals are often covered with traces of pollen that look like snow. The fruit, which is somewhat similar in shape to a flattened pumpkin or a discus, contains up to 40 seed portions.
Mucilages alleviate a dry cough. Hollyhock flowers are therefore included as a component in cough tea mixtures. Gargling with hollyhock flower tea can help heal mouth ulcers. In anthroposophical medicine a hollyhock flower extract is used as a topical application to treat states of exhaustion.
The scientific name Alcea is probably derived from the Greek alké = prowess, courage, strength in battle.
Although the Greek physician Dioscorides (1st century) already mentions the hollyhock as a medicinal plant, this member of the mallow family only became known in Europe in the 16th century, probably through the Turks. The uses of hollyhock listed by Dioscorides include the treatment of pain in the lower abdomen, bladder pain, inflammation of the large intestine and ulcers of the womb, bladder or kidneys. But only his recommendation to use flowers for mouthwashes to treat inflammation is still considered valid today.
The mallow family of plants includes such well-known crop plants as cotton (Gossypium spp.), cacao (Theobroma cacao) and okra (Abelmoschus esculentus), whose slimy pods are among the most popular vegetables in Africa, India and the USA. And mallows themselves are also used for more than just their flowers in tea mixtures. In the Middle Ages, the shoots of the common mallow (Malva neglecta) and blue mallow (Malva silvestris) were sought-after vegetables. Their fruits were cooked and eaten in the same way as peas or pickled as a substitute for capers. Even today young leaves of the mallow species Corchorus olitorius are widely eaten in the Middle East, where they are known as mulukhiyah and often cooked with chicken to make a soup or stew.
But hollyhocks have other uses. Their black-red flowers provide a pigment that was used in former times to colour wine and food. With wool, cotton or silk it gives a violet-blue to grey tone. Moreover, the fibres of their stems can be used to produce paper.
The plant from another perspective
The hollyhock stretches from the earth towards the sky. In the first year after sowing it anchors itself to the ground by its long taproot and forms a rosette of leaves. From this rosette the usually un-branched stem grows to its majestic height in the second year. This connection to the sky is stable but not rigid. The mucilages prevent the stem from hardening. They stop the fibrous structure of the stem from growing woody and keep it flexible. Mucilages are carriers of water, which they embed in the plant’s structure. Water, in turn, is a sign of life and vitality. Where there is no water, as in woody parts of plants, this vitality is missing. Hollyhock counteracts stiffening in the physical body and in this way is beneficial to humans.