Get Growing with Mickey Rathbun: Black hollyhocks are back

  • A close-up of a hollyhock. MICKEY RATHBUN

  • More hollyhocks springing back to life in the garden. MICKEY RATHBUN

  • Flowers in the Pope garden. CAROL POPE

  • Flowers in the Pope garden. CAROL POPE

  • Flowers in the Pope garden. CAROL POPE

  • Flowers in the Pope garden. CAROL POPE

Monday, July 18, 2022

The most pleasant surprise of this summer’s garden has been the return of a Blacknight hollyhock (Alcea rosea nigra) that I planted several years ago. Its single blossoms are as close to pure black as any flower I know, but when the late afternoon sun hits them, they glow luminous crimson. A closer inspection reveals a dusting of pale golden pollen on the velvety black petals. The hollyhock is popular with hummingbirds and other pollinators.

Hollyhocks come in a wide range of colors, from white to apricot and all shades of pink and red, but I was happy to learn that Martha Stewart’s favorite is the black variety. The first known reference to Alcea rosea nigra was made in 1629 by John Parkinson, a prominent British botanist, who described the blossoms as “of a darke red like black blood.”

I always think of 19th-century English cottage gardens when I see hollyhocks, but the plant has a fascinating and extensive history. Hollyhocks originated in China and were brought by Silk Road traders to Palestine in the 11th century C.E. The flower was the official seal of the Tokugawa shogunate in Japan (1603-1868) and has been frequently depicted in Chinese and Japanese art.

In subsequent centuries, European visitors to Palestine brought hollyhocks home with them. Hollyhocks were present in England as early as 1597, when they were described in a text called “The Grete Herball.”

The derivation of the name hollyhock is subject to debate. Some say that it originated from “holy hoc” (hoc being another name for mallow, a relative of the hollyhock), because the flower came from Palestine, the Holy Land. Another theory holds that a salve made from hollyhocks was used by Crusaders in the Middle Ages to treat their horses’ legs (the hock being a major joint in a horse’s hind leg).

Yet another relates it to the name “Holyoke.” I love discovering such competing etymologies of plant names.

Many medicinal properties have been attributed to hollyhocks over the centuries. Paradoxically, it’s been used as a laxative and as a cure for bedwetting. Anthropologists who excavated a 45,000-year-old Neanderthal burial site in northern Iraq in the 1950s believed that hollyhocks were among several types of flowers with medicinal qualities placed in a grave as part of a burial rite.

This theory, based on pollen analysis, has been debunked by more recent scientists who believe that the pollen was more likely brought into the site much later by small burrowing rodents.

Hollyhock seeds eventually made their way to the New World. Spanish settlers brought them to the Southwest in the early 1600s. They called the plant La Vara de San Jose (St. Joseph’s staff), believing that it would bring good luck from St. Joseph, the patron saint of travelers and immigrants. The hollyhock thrived in northern New Mexico, despite the harsh climate, and it continues to appear in gardens in and around Santa Fe.

Hollyhocks flourished throughout the United States. In the days before indoor plumbing, hollyhocks were often planted around outhouses because they were tall enough to screen the unsightly structures from view. A stand of hollyhocks also signaled the location of the outhouse, sparing demure ladies the indignity of having to inquire. This planting practice gave rise to the memorable nickname “outhouse flowers.”

Hollyhocks were a mainstay of British cottage gardens until a rust blight wiped them out in 1873. New double and pom-pom-style cultivars were produced around 1900 after the blight subsided. But according to the Gardens Trust, a leading British gardening organization, these new hollyhocks fell out of favor with discerning plantsmen, who considered them “over-improved.”

Although the hollyhock has regained some of its popularity in Great Britain, it is apparently disdained by high-brow gardeners there. Emma Townshend, garden columnist for the British newspaper “The Independent” (and daughter of The Who’s guitarist Pete Townshend), described hollyhocks as “the Laura Ashley curtains of the gardening world, dangerously blowsy and 10 years out of date.”

Ouch! I hope such snobbery hasn’t diminished the status of hollyhocks in the United States, but who’s to say? Maybe they’re deemed mere “outhouse flowers” by some, but to me they are nothing but glorious.

It heartens me to know that Emily Dickinson was an ardent fan of the hollyhock, which featured prominently in her Amherst garden.

The poet was known to be a highly skilled gardener by people familiar with her. In an 1882 letter to Maggie Maher, a beloved household servant, Dickinson wrote that she was “very busy picking up stems and stamens, as the hollyhocks leave their clothes around.” (She knew that cleaning up floral debris was not only a matter of appearance but also plant health, since diseases such as rust often lodge in dying plant material.)

The exact site of Dickinson’s garden beds isn’t known, but there are several contemporaneous descriptions of them. After the poet’s death, Mabel Loomis Todd wrote “the old garden still overflows with annual fragrance and color. Its armies of many-hued hyacinths run riot in the spring sunshine, while crocuses and daffodils peer above the fresh grass under the apple-trees … And then the roses, and hedges of sweetpeas, the masses of nasturtiums, and the stately procession of hollyhocks, in happy association with huge bushes of lemon verbena.”

The Dickinson Homestead has been closed for a major renovation, but when it reopens later this summer, the garden, the design of which reflects what is known about the Dickinson garden, will also be open to visitors.

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the “Get Growing” column since 2016.