The hollyhock flower (Alcea rosea) is a genus of approximately 60 species in the family Malvaceae. Hollyhocks are hardy biennials (takes two years to bloom) and short-lived perennials. The blow-shaped flowers are from 7 to 15 cm wide, depending on the variety. They can be white, pink, yellow, red, purple, apricot or black. The hollyhock plant owes its unique appeal to the arrangement of multiple flowers along a tall standing stalk. The stalk resembles a staff completely covered in flowers from every side. The flowers blossom progressively from the bottom to the top of the stalk. It has been reported that some hollyhock plants have grown seven meters tall.
In Ancient China, hollyhocks were popular plants in the flower gardens of wealthy patrons. The flowers were then spread from the Orient to the Middle East (Syria) through the pathways of trade. The Crusaders, returning to Western Europe, carried with them seeds of this flower, and propagated the species on the European continent.
The Latin name of the holycock plant, Alcea, is derived from the Greek word for healing, ‘altho’. The common name hollyhock is a coined word created from two root words — ‘holy’ and ‘hock’. ‘Holy’ is a reference to both the healing powers of the plant and the belief that it was brought to England from the Holy Land. ‘Hock’ is an Old English word which means mallow.
Hollyhock Flower Symbolism
An Ancient Symbol of the Circle of Life
Hollyhocks symbolize the circle of life and the passage of time. This symbolism is derived from an important archeological finding. Between 1957 and 1961, in the Shanidar Cave, an excavation site within the Zagros Mountains in northern Iraq, archeologists unearthed nine skeletons of Neanderthals. The scientists estimated that those remains dated from approximately 65,000 to 35,000 years ago. They also found evidence that our closest extinct human ancestors performed burial rituals. Clumps of hollyhock pollen were found in the cave. On the basis of this, the archeologists hypothesized that the Neanderthal Shamans used hollyhock because of its medicinal properties.
The Ancient Egyptians, too, buried their mummified dead along with wreaths made of hollyhock flowers. Traces of hollyhock flower have been found in the coffin of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun.
An Emblem of Holy Men and Saints
Hollyhocks were also known as St. Joseph’s staff and were used as a popular motif to represent the saint in various South European paintings. The Spanish version of this name was ‘Las Varas de San Jose’. The symbolic association came from the flower’s adaptibility and resilience to a wide varieties of soil and climate. The hollyhock flower thus became a symbol of God’s mercy.
Two older botanical names, Malva Benedicta and Caulis Santi, were once given to the plant. These names indicate that the hollyhock flower has often been associated with holy men and saints. Every year on August 29, yellow hollyhock flowers are used as church decorations. This is the day when St. John the Baptist’s death is commemorated.
A Symbol of Status and Nobility
Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan and one of the three ‘Great Unifiers’ of Japan, used the hollyhock as a floral motif in his family crest. The motif was painted on kimonos, lacquerware and other objects. It was a symbol of the nobility, high status and honor.
A Flower of Healing and Divine Beauty
One of the common names of the hollyhock flower is althea. Althea in Ancient Greek means ‘healer’. In Greek Mythology, Althea was a beautiful goddess of healing and compassion, family, marriage and protection. She was the daughter of King Thestius and Eurythemis.
A Symbol of the Magical Powers of the Fairies
An English legend goes that every midsummer (June 21), at the confluence of the rivers Wye and Severn, an island appeared. The beauty of the island was outlandish — it abounded in all kinds of flora and fauna and, in the middle of it, there was a castle in which the fairies lived. On this special day, the mortals were allowed to visit the island crossing through a tunnel under the river. Although the fairies remained invisible to the human eye, they were generous hosts. They welcomed their guests with enchanting music and provided to them plenty of food and drink.
The fairies, however, had a strict rule. Nothing could be taken away from the island. As fate would have it, one day a girl who came to the island picked up a bouquet during the midsummer celebration. The girl’s mother, cautious of the fairies’ rule, told her to leave the flowers behind. The girl, however, took a single flower from the bouquet and hid it in her pocket. When the fairies found out, they turned the girl into a pink hollyhock flower, and closed forever the invisible bridge between the two worlds.
In the Western magical tradition, it was also believed that fairies wore hollyhock blooms as skirts. Hollyhock seedpods are called fairy cheese, because their shape looks like a wheel of cheese. Hollyhock seeds are an important ingredient of magic potions. An old magic recipe from 1660 advises that a potion made from hollyhock buds mixed with several other seeds and ingredients can enable a person to see the magical realms of the fairies.
What Do the Various Colors of the Hollyhock Flower Mean
The symbolic meanings of the hollyhock flower are ambition, fecundity, fruitfulness and liberality. These attributes are derived from the abundant blossoming that hollyhocks display. According to a popular belief, hollyhocks should be included in bouquets and floral arrangements while celebrating the thirteenth wedding anniversary. In the Chinese lore, hemlocks represent nature and fertility.
Red Hollyhock Flower Meaning
The red hollyhock flower is a symbol of a woman’s motherly love for her children and passionate love for her partner. This symbolism is derived from goddess Althea (the Latin name of the hollyhock flower). The goddess did everything in her power to protect her son Meleager whom the Moirai (the Fates) predicted an early death.
White Hollyhock Flower Meaning
The white hollyhock flower is a symbol of a woman’s innocence and purity. They also stand for ambitions fulfilled through rightful and benevolent means.
Yellow Hollyhock Flower Meaning
The yellow hollyhock is a flower of recovery and regeneration. It signifies the ability to heal and re-balance after a challenge or a difficult period. The yellow bloom also stands for happiness, friendship and Platonic love.
Purple Hollyhock Flower Meaning
The purple hollyhock embodies aspects of spirituality, nobility and integrity.
Pink Hollyhock Flower Meaning
The pink hollyhock is a flower of femininity. It represents both the female gender and the inner feminine part of the soul. Beauty, strength, sympathy and receptivity are some of the many attributes of the pink hollyhock flower.
Black Hollyhock Flower Meaning
The black hollyhock is associated with fruitful ambitions, achievements and abundance.
Some Interesting Facts and Characteristics of the Hollyhock Flower
- In the period between the 13th and the 16th century many botanists, philosophers and physicians, including Albertus Magnus and William Turner, wrote about the medicinal properties of the hollyhock. The flower, also called the ‘holy mallow’, was used as diuretic, laxative, emollient, and in anti-inflammatory treatments.
- An annual festival held on May 15 in Kyoto, Japan, named Aoi Matsuri, is dedicated to the hollyhock flower. Historical records show that the festival has been celebrated at two ancient shrines, stating from the seventh century. The spiritual significance of the festival is twofold. It is believed that during the festival people undergo a spiritual purification and their sins are removed. Priests also make offerings to the gods and in return, receive their blessings.
- The hollyhock is the unofficial city flower of Taos, New Mexico. This goes back to an early settler, Teresina Bent Scheurich, who was the daughter of New Mexico’s first governor. Miss Teresina actively promoted the cultivation of hollyhocks in the city of Taos.
- Today hollyhocks are considered an invasive species due to their hasty proliferation.
- Hollyhocks are edible, but the taste of their flower is rather bland. Hollyhocks are added to stews and soups, buds are used in salads, while young leaves can be consumed either raw or cooked. Hollyhock petals are often used to garnish fishes.
- The leaves of the hollyhock are slightly hairy.
- The schizocarp fruit of the hollyhock plant contains 15 – 20 small seeds.
- The tallest hollyhock in recent times was documented in the 2004 edition of the Guiness Book of Records. According to this source, a man from England grew in his garden a hollyhock which was 19 feet 7 inches (~6 meters) tall.
- Alcea rosea nigra, also known under the names Jet Black or Nigra hollyhock, was once planted by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello.
- The actual color of the black variety hollyhock flower (Alcea rosea nigra) is violet-brown.
- The black hollyhock was first described in 1629.
- In the 19th-century Germany, the black-flowered hollyhock was used to color wine.
- Hollyhocks were once used as a traditional medicine to prevent miscarriages. The potion was made by soaking hollyhock flowers in wine.
- In Tibet, the roots and flowers of hollyhock are used to treat inflammation of the reproductive and the urinary systems.
- There are many confirmed health benefits of the hellyhock plant. Most notably, hellyhock improves blood circulation, prevents kidney disease, reduces high fever and can ease difficult labor pains. The root of the plant regulates digestion and increases the metabolism rate.
- The flowers of Alcea rosea nigra have been used to produce a dye of many color hues, from pale lavender to dark purple.
- The Crusaders treated their horses with a salve made from the hollyhock plant. This medicine healed the the wounds on the animal’s hind legs, or “hocks”. According to some historiographs, the word hollyhock is actually derived from the words ‘holy’ (the Holy Land) and hock (the horse’s leg).
- One of the most popular hollyhock varieties of all time was developed in the 1880’s, by Chater of Essex, an English horticulturalist. The name of this hollyhock flower was Chater’s Double.
- After an outbreak of a rust disease that attacked hollyhock flowers in 1873, the cultivation of these flowers was completely abandoned. They made a comeback in the 1930’s.
- The family of the hollyhocks also includes okra, cotton and hibiscus.
The Best Time to Gift Someone a Hollyhock Flower
Hollyhock flowers can be gifted on various occasions, since all their known symbolism is positive. These flowers are perfect for birthdays and anniversaries, since they celebrate life. As a symbol of fertility and motherly love, they can be gifted to couples to congratulate the birth of a baby.
Purple hollyhocks are the right way to express respect and admiration towards a mentor, teacher or a spiritual guide. All hollyhocks, especially the black ones, symbolize multitude, abundance and prosperity. This makes them a perfect housewarming gift. Gifting white and pink hollyhock blooms is a wonderful way to recognize the ambitions and achievements of young women — from graduation to admission to a college to landing a job. The height and sturdiness of the hollyhock stem symbolize stability, safety and reliability. Gifting a hollyhock to parents can be a way to express appreciation and gratitude for their love and care throughout the years. To friends and family members who love gardening, gifting a hollyhock plant is a beautiful way of conveying wishes for everlasting happiness, abundance, health and good luck.