Traditionally associated with cottage-style borders, Hollyhocks are a mysterious and prolific flower with a long and rich history. This sun to partial shade loving Asian native is an adaptation of an old cottage garden favourite. The dramatic, near-black flowers of Nigra work equally well in a contemporary, minimalist garden. This unique variety creates an impressive impact against most backgrounds.
The tall strong stems bearing dark maroon flowers are almost black on overcast days but will have a hint of red in the bright sun. The flowers are highly attractive to butterflies and bees.
Rosettes of big hairy leaves will develop by autumn then die back before winter. It will bloom the following summer….the word “bloom” being an understatement!.
Hollyhocks are almost as easy to grow as sunflowers and would probably be grown as often if more gardeners were aware of their good nature. Unlike many other dramatic flowers that are simpler to admire than to actually grow, hollyhocks need no coddling. Their character is superior to their reputation and they are best praised by being grown.
Sowing: Late spring to early autumn
Although classed as a biennial, Hollyhock often lives for several years. They must establish a root system first, and then they can produce the stalk(s) of flowers, for their first year they will bear leaves only. If sown early in the year they may bloom the same year, but sown midyear they will bloom the following summer.
Hollyhocks are generally planted in midsummer to autumn to give them a chance to establish a system during the winter months. Seeds can be sown directly into a prepared bed or can be started in pots in a cold frame or indoors, to be planted as transplants during spring. Hollyhocks also adapt beautifully to containers, as long as the containers are deep enough.
Sow seeds at 20°C (68°F) on the surface of a peaty soil. Lay the seed on the surface of well-tilled soil, cover with about 2mm (¼in) layer of soil.
Keep moist and do not let the seeds dry out once planted. They will usually germinate in 2 to 3 weeks at 20°C (68°F).
If planted indoors, prick out each seedling as it becomes large enough to handle, transplant into 7.5cm (3in) pots or trays. Gradually acclimatise to outdoor conditions for 10 to 15 days before planting out after all risk of frost.
Plant in moist but well drained soil. The plants need plenty of room, space them 45 to 60cm (18 to 24in) apart. Because of their height, they are best planted at the back of the border.
Dress the soil around them with compost, rotted or mushroom manure or seaweed. Once the leaves have died back for winter, give your plants bonemeal for the roots of the plants. In cold area the plants will benefit from a mulch to protect from winter frosts.
As the plants begin to grow they will need support, they are not wispy plants and need a strong support or something for them to lean on—a wall, a tree or shrubby plants. Water well during dry spells. In autumn give the plants a good trim back to 15cm (6in) from the ground.
Deadhead to prolong the flowering season through to August. To encourage self-sown seedlings for the subsequent season, allow some blossoms on the stalks to form seed pods. Others can be pulled up and composted.
Plant Uses: :
Cottage/Informal Garden, Architectural Plants. Flower Arranging, Flowers Borders and Beds, Wildflower Gardens or Wildlife Gardens.
When harvesting your own hollyhock seeds, allow the pods will tell you when the seeds are ready. Make sure that the seed pods are fully mature on the stalk before removing them. You will notice that the small stem which holds the seed pod starts to turn brown. Try not to pick seed pods until the papery shell turns a yellow or golden brown.
The seeds are all lined up together in a ring inside the seed pod. Gently peel open part of the flap that covers the seed ring. If the seeds are not dry and blackish, don't pick that pod. Once the seeds appear blackish and dry they are ready to be harvested. Use sharp garden scissors to cut the pods from the stalk then dry and store the seeds in paper bags until you are ready to plant them.
After the seed pods have dried and you find yourself with six foot tall empty stalks, simply cut the stalks to the ground. Don't panic, this is not an art form. Just cut off the dead stuff. This is not a growing requirement it just makes the garden look neat and tidy.
Hollyhocks recognised today are believed to be of Asian origin, they are depicted in Chinese art as early as the 9th century, symbolising passing time. Their route to the the rest of the world seems to have followed the Silk Road.
Said to have first reached Europe in the 16th century, hollyhocks may have started out as plants for the wealthy, shown in Chinese art and, much later in the walled gardens of the rich. But it wasn’t long before the innate hardiness of hollyhocks, and the large supplies of seed they provide, brought them into the working classes and into cottage gardens.
Swedish Botanist Carl Linnaeus whose arrangement for classifying, naming, and ranking, living things during the mid to late 1700s is still in wide use today, albeit with a good many changes; identified this plant, and suggested both the Latin Alcea and Greek Althea to designate these pretty cultivars. Althea is the Greek word for 'healing'. Hollyhock have long been used medicinally.
The species name rosea means red, more accurately a deep red-purple, the colour of ancient roses.
'Nigra' is a term used for 'black'. The Black Hollyhock was described as early as 1629 by John Parkinson, as being 'of a darke red like black blood', an apt description for the large single flowers that grace this plant in June and July. The Boston nurseryman, John B. Russe, offered seeds of 'Black antwerp hollyhock: Althea nigra' in a forty-two-page catalogue published in 1827.
The Watchman, Jet Black, Nigra Erfurter, Black Beauty, After Midnight and Arabian Nights are just a few other terms used to describe the very dark blooms of this variety.
Commonly called hollyhocks, holly is said to be an altered form of the word holy. The plant is said to have been brought back with the Crusades having been transplanted in many parts of the world during the Middle Ages. In Medieval times the hollyhock was known as 'St. Joseph's Staff.'
It is referred to in a British horticultural treatise of 1548 as holy-hoke, an adaptation of the Welsh name. It may also have been called hock leaf because it was used to reduce the swelling in horses' hocks. The Anglo-Saxon word for Mallow was 'hoc'.
The seeds have been called 'cheeses' because the pod is shaped like a wheel of cheese.
The Hollyhock is a very old plant. The grave of a 50,000 year old Neanderthal man was found to contain the remains of Hollyhocks. Although Hollyhocks may have no medicinal uses in modern times, the plants were used in antiquity to solve a myriad of health issues. Medicinally, the plant was used primarily as an emollient (something that softens, something used to make a salve), as a minor pain reliever, and as a diuretic.
If you have a sheep with sore feet, follow the instruction of Gervase Markham (1614) and
"annoint her feet with the juyce of the Hearb Holyhocke."
The flowers are edible. Hollyhock buds were used in a recipe of 1660, with Marigolds, Wild Thyme and young Hazel buds to enable one to see fairies. They have been pressed into service for making and dyeing cloth and children used to make Hollyhock dolls from the flowers.
And before we leave the subject, one more lovely bit, from Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses:
All the names I know from nurse:
Gardener's garters, shpher'd purse;
Bachelor's buttons, lady's smock,
And the lady hollyhock.
- Additional Information
Seed Form Natural Seeds per gram 100 seeds / gram Family Malvaceae Genus Alcea (Althaea) Species rosea Cultivar var. nigra Common Name Althaea rosa, Black Hollyhock Other Language Names Rose triemiere Noire Hardiness Hardy Biennial Flowers Dark maroon, almost black Natural Flower Time Mid summer to late summer Foliage Herbaceous Height To 180cm (to 72in) Spread 60 to 90cm (24 to 36in) Position Full Sun Soil Moderately-fertile, well-drained soil Time to Sow Late spring to early autumn Germination 2 to 3 weeks at 20°C (68°F).