There has been some debate as to which genus contains true hollyhock flowers – the alcea or althaea group. Although they share many similarities, and are held within the same family and order, most dedicated gardeners will tell you that alcea is the true hollyhock genus. The alcea genus consists of roughly 60 species in the malvaceae family, and are native to central and southwest Asia. These blossoms, which may be either perennial or biennial, sprout from an erect, 5 to 9 foot stem which sports broad, lobed foliage. The flowers themselves may grow in either a double or single form – though single heads are most popular. The blossoms are rounded and can be between 2 to 5 inches wide. They come in a vast array of colors – from the traditional white to shades of pink, yellow, deep purple and red. Some cultivars may appear in more unique hues, such as a deep crimson-tinged black.
Hollyhock flowers have a very long history – in fact, remains of this blossom were located at a Stone Age burial site in the Shanidar cave in Iraq. Hollyhocks – whose name was derived from the old English expression, “Holy Flower” – also have some interesting connections. For instance, Thomas Jefferson cultivated these plants in Monticello; in Japan, hollyhocks became the seal of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and Frank Lloyd Wright named his first Los Angeles project, “Hollyhock House,” after the owner, Aline Barnsdall’s, favorite flower. In addition to having cultural connections, hollyhock flowers have also become an important part of art. Not only can the flowers themselves be used to create a rust red-colored dye, they have also made many appearances in fine art paintings. Three of the best known examples include Georgia O’Keeffe’s uniquely-hued “Black Hollyhock, Blue Larkspur,” “Pink with Pedernal,” and Vincent Van Gogh’s realistic, “Vase With Hollyhocks.” More modern works include, “Calling All Bees,” by Alma Sanbern, and “La Puerta Azul,” by Gayle Faucette.
As a symbol, hollyhock flowers generally represent abundance and fertility. These blossoms are frequently given to new or soon-to-be new mothers – generally to wish her luck in bearing a child, or to welcome the birth itself. They are also sometimes presented to newly married couples to wish them a large and happy family. Although these blooms look fantastic in any arrangement or bouquet, many people prefer to give them as potted plants – especially the miniature cultivars.