Dancing ladies with a healing past

Have you ever made a hollyhock doll? Just pluck a hollyhock flower off its stalk and turn it face down in your hand. Can you see the lady wearing a colorful ballroom gown? No cottage garden is complete without these dancing seven-foot tall showy spikes to sweep your eyes skyward. Gardens generous enough to allow hollyhocks free reign are unpretentious, happy, inviting places.

Hollyhock flowers--shaped like a series of large, open bells or a row of martini glasses--bring to mind the image of a pleasant, little granny standing behind a white picket fence beckoning to me. As I enter her garden gate thinking how I'm in for a nice cup of hot tea and a hunk of yellow sponge cake, granny pulls a silver flask out of her pocket and winks at me--a fitting tribute to the hollyhocks that frame her; their background is also chock full of surprising family secrets.

Looking at the statuesque flower spikes running amok in my garden, I marvel at the Mallow family, that group of oddballs to which hollyhock belongs. Its cousins include: the useful fiber plant, cotton; the spongy airhead, marsh mallow (the original source for marshmallow confections); the rough, dunce cap-shaped vegetable, okra (with its disgusting slimy innards); and the shockingly conspicuous painted ladies, hibiscus and rose of Sharon, along with a myriad of other strange kin.

You can choose your friends but not your family, so hollyhock is stuck with all those odd fellows. This global family, which contains about 1,550 species, is not confined to a single part of the world nor to one type of plant. What joins this diverse clan is the fact that their flowers all have a central column of joined stamens. (The Swedish botanist C. Linnaeus discovered this; he identified plants by their floral characteristics. To this day, botanists still use his guidelines.)

The common name, hollyhock, is very old and doesn't have a clear history. It supposedly came from joining two words together--holy and hoc, an Anglo-Saxon word for mallow. The word holy may have been added because the plant was brought to Britain by the Crusaders. Other common names hollyhock used to go by were: Joseph's Staff, an endearment bestowed by the Spaniards; Hockleaf, for its reputed ability to reduce swelling in horses' hocks; and Saint Cutbert's Cowl, a reference to the hooded shape of the flowers.

Hollyhocks have large, showy flowers that come in white and shades of red and yellow, salmon and almost black. The blooms are arranged in a long spike and open in succession starting at the bottom and moving upward. Hollyhocks are native to Central Europe and China. Cultivated strains are now grown in the Balkans as field crops for the pharmaceutical industry.

The healing properties of hollyhock (Alcea rosea) and its cousin, marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis), are legendary. Both plants have long histories of medicinal use. Hollyhock was used to treat inflammation of the mucous membranes because of its abundant mucilage. The mucilaginous juice is said to be very soothing to the throat and intestinal tract. Soothing herbal compresses and bath preparations were made to treat cuts and bruises. Back in the 1600s hollyhocks were thought to cure a variety of ailments such as: sunburns, coughs, cramps, kidney and bladder problems, shortness of breath, convulsions, wounds and more. In addition, their fibrous stems were used to make cloth, and the dark burgundy colored flowers yielded a very good blue dye. It's no wonder hollyhocks were one of the earliest imports to America.

Today marsh mallow is all but forgotten, except for its sticky namesake that is now made mostly of sugar. Hollyhocks, on the other hand, are everywhere and continue to grow wherever humans reside. They linger near our homes, poking through fences, peering into windows and flaunting their bloomers in alleyways. That might be how they earned the unflattering nickname of alley orchids. Hollyhocks are easy to grow and have been used medicinally for so long that their remains were even found in an archeological dig buried with a Neanderthal man! If our ancient ancestors believed in their healing powers, the least we can do is make a place for hollyhocks in our gardens. They're guaranteed to heal your soul.

Suzann Bell is a horticulturist with the University of Idaho Extension in Ada County. Send gardening inquiries to Suzann c/o Boise Weekly or to sbell@uidaho.edu.

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