Hollyhock, Latin name alcea rosea, is a treasured garden beauty. Would you believe that this graceful flower was once associated with rugged outdoor bathrooms? Yes, the tall, statuesque plants are perfect for blocking an unsightly outhouse. In olden days one didn't have to ask directions to the bathroom; the tall bell shaped blooms were an unspoken signage--“outhouse here”. Since most modern toilets have moved indoors, the hollyhock has dropped the stinky reputation, while adding lanky, colorful spikes of color to the landscapes.
Long before it was used to cover commodes in early U.S homesteads, the hollyhock was a celebrated flower in its native range of Southwest and Central Asia. The roots have been celebrated in the East for centuries as a powerful medicinal.
In fact, it is believed that the plants’ medicinal qualities led to its spread to Europe during the crusades. This legend recounts British knights using a regionally known remedy of using hollyhock root to soothe their horses’ sore hooves. They brought seeds back to Northern Europe where they quickly adapted to the local growing conditions. In Victorian England the Hollyhock quickly became popular in pleasure gardens, and breeders began tinkering with colors and forms. Hollyhock was sent to the American colony early on, as it was already known to be a reliable widely adaptable plant.
The hardy plants can tolerate poor soil and drought, and are highly adaptable to many regions and a diverse array of growing conditions, making them one of the easiest flowers to grow in the garden. Hollyhocks are perennial in zones 3-9; however, in northern zones they are often biennial, flowering after the second year of growth. The tall towering plants will tolerate poor soil and little water, but they require full sunlight and do not like mucky, soggy soil.
The towering stalks are best planted up against fences or along back borders as they can easily grow from 6-8 and sometimes even 10 feet tall. The blooms last from summer till fall, leaving the little pods behind. Leave these little purses of seed to dry, and they will drop--spreading more hollyhock love for next season! Aside from a striking garden feature, the hollyhock is also an edible ornamental.
The blooms are edible but bland, and the immature leaves make a tasty salad green when picked early in the season. So whether you have an ugly outhouse to hide, or a poor patch of soil in need of a floral fix up, hollyhock delivers big rewards for little input!