I've always thought of hollyhocks as a settlers' or pioneers' flower-- without any particular evidence except having seen hollyhocks, along with hardy roses, growing beside shallow holes that may indicate the cellar of an early-day home. I surmise they were popular because they grow easily but I've also read that the stems can be used as firewood.
To my utter delight, I've just learned that the hollyhock was one of the first plants brought to the new world. I intuited those pioneer women planting!
In deference to the women who planted hollyhocks on this prairie, I've tucked seeds into likely spots around the retreat house, Homestead House, and into the stony ground on all four sides of my Windbreak House since moving back to the ranch. Most years, they have done well on the north, east and south, but very few grew on the western side of Windbreak House, blasted by the afternoon sun. But this year the western seeds received extraordinary rain, so the older hollyhocks some on the west side have nearly reached the deck railing.
When I lived in Cheyenne, I spent fifteen years making our corner parkway a display spot for native species, growing as many varieties as I could of flowering plants adapted to the arid climate. I wanted to demonstrate to other residents that their yards could be beautiful without pouring expensive city water into the ground.
So I grew purple coneflower, gaillardia, bee balm, several cacti, columbine, evening primrose and Shasta daisies. I planted Jerusalem cross, chamomile, oxalis, currant, lamb’s ear, lupine, flax, rose mallow, delphinium, snapdragons, penstemon, sweet peas, Siberian iris, wild flags, hyacinths and crocus. I grew butter and eggs, salpiglossis, myrtle, Centaurea, buffalo gourd, plains coreopsis, common sunrose, low poppy mallow, rose mallow, larkspur, pyrethrum, statice and campanula. And more.
Finally, nostalgically, I transplanted my grandmother's pink peony to a spot beside the front gate. Behind the windbreak fence, a tall plank structure, I planted hollyhock seed gathered from my grandmother's and aunt Josephine's plants. Many of the other seeds I deposited in the ground there did not grow, but in the back alley, the hollyhocks reached rose to eight or nine feet, peering over fence, their sturdy stems providing shelter for the birds and stalking cover for the neighborhood cats.
When I've passed the house in recent years, I note the parkway is overgrown and untended. But the hollyhocks grow sturdily in the alley.
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Hollyhocks, native to central Europe and China, are part of in the hard-working Mallow (Malvaceae) family, which numbers more than two hundred flowering plants including such unlikely cousins as cotton, cacao, marsh mallow (yes, it is the original source for the confection), okra, painted ladies, hibiscus and rose of Sharon. What these diverse specimens have in common is that their flowers all have a central column of joined stamens. The hollyhock genus (Alcea) includes about sixty specimens.
Looking up any aspect of this history could send one wandering among in nomenclature highways and paths of origins. You might disappear for weeks. And I haven't even mentioned the hollyhock weevil and the medicinal uses.
Remains of the plant have been found in an archaeological dig in the grave of a Neanderthal man buried more than 50,000 years ago.
The common name "hollyhock" is very old and also has no clear history. One source says the word comes from "alkaia," the Greek word for mallow. Others say it originated with "holy" and "hoc," an Anglo-Saxon word for mallow.
Some say the "holy" was added because it was brought to Britain by the Crusaders in a salve for sore horses' hocks; in that regard, it was also known as Hockleaf. The Spaniards called it Joseph's Staff, and, to continue these religious references, it’s also known as Saint Cuthbert's Cowl, probably as a reference to the hooded shape of the flowers.
St. Cuthbert was an Anglo-Saxon monk and hermit who sounds like a fine fellow but I found no suggestion that he knew about or used hollyhocks.
* * *
Hollyhocks are easily grown from seeds and do well in poor soil and dry conditions. This time of year, and especially this year, you might stroll casually past your neighbor's tall hollyhock staffs and slip a seed pod or two into your pocket. I generally plant new seed in fall, water it generously for a week or two and then forget it until next spring when the plants pop up and surprise me.
Put the seed where you want the plants; they’re hard to transplant because of a long, tough taproot. I usually scrape a shallow trench, no more than an inch deep, sprinkle the seeds liberally, cover, stomp the earth down and then water. The plants will be tall, so I place them close to buildings for background. With our wind, they often lean and lean and lean until they nearly reach the ground, so I like to put them near fences for support. The big, showy blooms, some frilly and double, range in color from white through red and yellow, peach and almost black. The blooms open in succession starting at the bottom of the plant and moving upward, so you can collect seed at the bottom while blooms at the top are still opening: a good way to be stung or at least buzzed by the local bees.
The plants are short-lived. Some authorities say the plant is biennial; others consider it perennial, perhaps because it spreads its seeds so widely that new plants return year after year in the same area. Experts say they like hot, dry weather, which makes them ideal for this climate.
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Medicinal uses may have made the plant popular with pioneers. One modern source suggests drinking an infusion made of flowers and leaves to aid in urinary tract infections, gastrointestinal and respiratory ailments. The same source recommends the leaves as a poultice for chapped or dry skin.
The thick mucilage, the gluey protein produced by nearly all plants, is said to be soothing to the throat and mucous membranes, thus good for coughs, colds. Cacti and flax seed are better-known sources of mucilage. And I recall the word being used for a particularly nasty glue when I was a child; much more stuck to my fingers than to anything I was trying to affix.
* * *
Testifying to its Asian origins, the hollyhock is part of the official seal of the Shogun of Japan and the name of a Japanese soccer team; Kyoto hosts a hollyhock festival yearly.
* * *
One day, as I drove down the street in Cheyenne toward the driveway, I saw an elderly woman and two little girls standing among the tall hollyhocks in the alley, where they would be hidden from the house by the privacy fence. Hmm, I thought.
When I strolled around the corner, there was the owner of the house next door with two little blonde girls. "Oh," she said, flushing red. "I hope you don’t mind. I’m showing my granddaughters how to make hollyhock dolls!"
"I absolutely do not mind," I said, "and thank you for reminding me."
* * *
Have you ever made a hollyhock doll?
Here’s a source of endless entertainment that requires almost nothing in supplies, does not employ technology and is guaranteed to keep participants away from the computer or TV screen.
Simply pluck a hollyhock blossom and turn it upside down. See? It’s a green-haired lady wearing a colorful dress, full skirt sweeping across the floor. When my mother wanted to make a little fancier doll, she tied ribbon or thread around just below the green sheath, making the doll’s waist.
I always thought these basic hollyhock dolls looked as though they had no heads. To remedy that, take a green seed pod or bud and fasten it with a toothpick above the skirt blossom.
Or pin in place above the first a second, smaller hollyhock or other flower blossom to create the look of a lady wearing a broad hat. You can stack several more blossoms below to make the skirt layered and more full. Or use a spent bloom to make a head with a tall headdress or long flowing hair.
The dolls don’t last long, but floating them in a broad bowl of water allows them to drift gracefully through your day.
* * *
Suddenly it occurs to me to do an internet search.
I was woefully wrong; these days, computers could figure into this entertainment. Not only are there photographs of hollyhock dolls, but step-by-step tutorials-- even a video!-- on how to make them. (Search "images for hollyhock dolls" for photos; see the Better Homes & Gardens website for instructions; or take a look at www.DesignMom.com . There’s even a site that sells fake ones but I’m not going to help anyone find it.)
Horrified, I picture little girls being lined up in front of a computer screen to learn the correct way to make a hollyhock doll.
However, several of the sites offer ideas new to me. For example, PremeditatedLeftovers.com suggests pulling off the sepal of the first blossom to expose "eyes" and breaking off the stem to create a mouth.
Still I hope that somewhere grandmothers are demonstrating for their grandchildren. I hope children are left alone in the garden to use their imaginations to create the dolls. I'm sure there was a time when most little girls knew how to make dolls from hollyhocks. I hope the numbers are growing as young mothers learn from their computer time.
* * *
The key to success with hollyhock dolls-- as it is with so many creative enterprises-- is imagination.
Here comes the writing connection I always try to slip into these blogs.
When I began this essay, I had no idea whether or not I would find a link to writing. In fact, this was to be a break from reading manuscripts, a simple reflection on the innocent fun of long hot afternoons I spent with hollyhock dolls after my grandmother and mother taught me how to make them.
I waltzed those dolls all over my grandmother’s screened-in porch on hot summer afternoons. I don’t recall imagining their escorts, but I suppose I did.
Imaginatively, the dolls have turned into writing coaches. They remind me of my maxim that spending time thinking about your writing is probably as valuable as the time you spend making black marks on paper or on a computer screen.
Don't even think. Just sit, look around you, see what happens.
And handwork of any kind is good because it detaches you from the writing implement of the day. While doing something creative besides writing, you can think about your writing project. You'll find you work out all kinds of problems that had defeated you while you sat at the computer, fuming.
Relax, Breathe deeply. Imagine those little pixies with green faces whirling around the garden at dusk.
* * *
One source says that hazel buds, wild thyme, marigolds and hollyhocks were part of a recipe made in 1660 AD that enabled anyone who ate it to see fairies.
Or perhaps what they saw were hollyhock dolls, dancing in the wind.
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