The Story of the Hollyhock in Australia

Pink hollyhock

The hollyhock disdains the common size of herbs, and like a tree does proudly rise. Proud she appears, but try her and you'll find no plant more mild, or friendly to mankind. (Abraham Cowley, 1708)

Hollyhock stem

They rise behind the fountain rocks, these spinsters robed in dainty frocks, so stately, prim, and tall; their hue the very rainbow mocks, these quaint old-fashioned hollyhocks against my garden wall. (Lloyd Mifflin, New South Wales, 1916)

Year after year, we enjoy seeing our garden adorned with delightful hollyhocks. These stately plants with their tall spires of flowers add height, colour, and old-fashioned character reminiscent of a time now forgotten. In our garden they usually reach two to three metres high (our tallest so far has been 3.3 metres) but in 2018 one growing in Bunbury, Western Australia, measured a dizzying 6.78 metres; a height never before recorded in the world! Not bad for a biennial.

Ancient origins

The hollyhock is one of the world's oldest cultivated flowers, and has been a favourite of the English cottage garden for many hundreds of years. Hollyhocks have a long history: in an intriguing archeological discovery made in 1963, Hollyhocks were one of seven species of flowers found in clusters around the 50,000-year-old remains of a Neanderthal man at a burial site in northern Iraq. Hollyhocks are also said to have been cultivated in the Sichuan province of China for over two thousand years, and it was from China that specimens were introduced into England during Elizabethan and Victorian times, the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. During both these periods, the Hollyhock was a particularly prized and widely-grown plant.

A plant from the Holy Land

Before the arrival of cultivars from China, the Spanish-born Eleanor of Castile was said to have first introduced the hollyhock to England in the thirteenth century, and it may be because of this that an old name for the hollyhock was the 'Spanish rose'. The original native country of this introduced plant, however, was not Spain but the Holy Land. Eleanor had married the heir to the English throne, Prince Edward, the future King Edward I, in 1254. They travelled extensively, and in 1271 she accompanied him on the Ninth Crusade to the Holy Land, where she lived at Acre for over a year. In 1272, Edward's father died, and the couple made a slow journey back to England, arriving in 1274. Whether or not this was the actual moment the hollyhock was introduced to England, the plant is nevertheless known to derive its name from being a mallow native to the Holy Land, 'hock' being the Anglo-Saxon term for a mallow. An early written reference to the 'holyhocke' was in John Gardener's The Feate of Gardening, published in 1440. In the last 150 years, naturalists have indeed recorded numerous native species of Alcea, the hollyhock, in Israel, including A. acaulis, A. apterocarpa, A. digitata, A. dissecta, A. galilaeaA. ficifolia, A. kurdica, A. lavateriflora, A. rosea var. Sibthorpii, A. rufescens, A. setosa, and A. striata.

In past times, a plant had to be useful as well as beautiful to be popular. Beautiful, edible, attractive to bees, used in folk medicine from Britain to Tibet, the hollyhock easily won the hearts of the people. Even the fibrous bark of the stalks have been used to produce 'a good, strong cloth'. In 1821, 280 acres of land near Flint in Wales were planted out for this purpose, and at the same time it was discovered that the plant yields a blue dye 'equal in beauty and permanence to the best indigo.'

Transportation to the colonies

By the early 19th century, the hollyhock was being cultivated by colonists in Australia. In 1824, when a journalist from the Hobart Town Gazette commented that he was not aware of any hollyhocks growing in the island, he received a quick response that there were, in fact, specimens growing 'in the greatest luxuriance' in several parts of Van Dieman's Land, as Tasmania was then known. By the 1840's, hollyhocks were a staple flower of nurseries and agricultural shows across Australia and New Zealand. In 1848, John McMahon, a nurseryman of Camden, New South Wales, had no less than forty different varieties of hollyhocks offered for sale to his customers from Sydney.

The 1850's and '60's saw the hollyhock reach its zenith in popularity as 'the favourite flower of England' (The South Australian Advertiser, 29 May 1863). In 1864, The Australasian declared that a revival of the hollyhock had taken place in England and Europe, and that 'the hollyhock has become even more fashionable and prized than in the days of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers.' Three champions of this hollyhock revival were Charles Barron, William Chater, and William Paul. In 1855, William Paul had written in his 'Hour with the Hollyhock':

'The Hollyhock is a capital plant for the borders of plantations or shrubbery walks: it forms a finer distant object in such situations than the Dahlia, is less lumpish, and continues blooming to a later period of the year. Again, it may be planted to advantage in the back ground of an herbaceous border, so that the lower part of the stem is hid from view by the plants in front. In both these situations it may be planted singly, in irregular lines, or in groups of three or five. And here, perhaps, the less choice kinds are more in character than the finest, as a high state of culture is neither convenient nor expected. To be effective en masse is all that is looked for, and the showiest should be chosen, the hardy kinds of brilliant colours, and left to assume their natural form of growth.

Global devastation from 'hollyhock rust'

While the hollyhock was enjoying a golden age of popularity and growers were dazzling the world with wonderful new varieties, a terrible disease arrived on the scene so deadly that for several years it 'threatened to destroy the whole race of hollyhocks and other malvaceous plants.' This disease was a rust fungus (Puccinia malvacearum) first reported in Chile in 1852. Five years later, in 1857, it appeared on hollyhocks in Australia. John Carson, president of the Horticultural Society of Victoria, brought the disease to the notice of the Royal Horticultural Society of England. Whilst 'Hollyhock rust' eventually proved to be devastating worldwide, little attention appears to have been paid to it in Australia in the first few years of its appearance, and hollyhocks continued to be grown in nurseries and exhibited in flower shows.

On 25th November 1865, the Gardener's Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette published a notice, declaring: 'We have lately called attention to two parasites which have proved extremely destructive in Australia, the one so prevalent as almost to prevent the cultivation of hollyhocks, and the other very injurious to plum trees.'

But in December 1867 Geelong was still growing 'some excellent new varieties':

'This noble flower is deserving of especial care and culture, being well adapted for either the shrubbery or flower garden. Great improvement has been effected in these showy border plants of late; even this season some excellent new varieties are just coming into bloom. When the plant throws up more than one spike or stem of flowers, all the others ought to be sacrificed; this will strengthen the stem and produce much larger and finer blossoms.' (Geelong Advertiser, 7 December 1867)

In January 1868, the Ballarat Horticultural Society and the Horticultural Society of Victoria were still exhibiting different varieties of hollyhocks, as was the Horticultural Society of New South Wales in December 1868 and January 1870. It was around this time that 'hollyhock rust' spread to Europe, landing first in Spain in 1869, spreading to France in 1872, then England and Germany in 1873. In 1886, it also reached North America. The disease was now causing the widespread death of hollyhocks worldwide, and an English account of it from 1873 is as follows:

'Last June it was recorded from France, whilst at the beginning of July it had reached this country, where it immediately commenced its ravages on our hollyhocks with great virulence, and completely killed to the ground all the plants it attacked, both in private gardens and in nurseries.'

In Australia, the disease also reached a peak at this time. All that could be done was to dig up and burn every infected plant, and thus the hollyhock retreated from its ancient and respected position of prominence as a favourite of the cottage garden. For many years it was almost impossible to grow hollyhocks, so severe was the disease. 

'Growers of the hollyhock have been in great tribulation for the last two years in consequence of the devastation caused by a parasitic fungus (Puccinia malvacearum) which threatened to destroy the whole race of hollyhocks and other malvaceous plants. It assumes the appearance of red rust on the foliage and stems of the plants and quickly destroys them. It increases so rapidly that a very short time elapses from the appearance of the disease till the death of the plant occurs. (The Leader, Melbourne, 26 September 1874.) 

The Leader also reported in 1875 that 'the Hollyhock disease has been all but universal.' In 1877 the famous William Chater was finding some success in the way he prepared the ground:

'The hollyhocks have been suffering from the disease which has rendered their culture all but impossible in this country as well as in England. It is a fungus which takes the form of brown spots upon the foliage, but for which Mr. Chater, the great grower of these flowers, thinks he has found a cure in a liberal system of cultivation. He prepares deep and wide trenches of highly-manured soil, which supplies moisture and coolness at the roots, and he mulches the surface.' (The Australasian, 7 April 1877)

Nevertheless, the Geelong Advertiser reported in 1878 that 'Hollyhocks are almost flowers of the past, owing to the prevalence of a rust-like disease which has affected them both in this country and Europe.'

The survival of the hollyhock

Gardeners persisted, however, and so too did the genes of surviving plants, and in time the plant made a return from its near-extinction. In 1905, apparently mistaking a European origin for the rust disease, The Leader reported:

'During the past three months one of the most conspicuous flowers in many gardens around Melbourne was the hollyhock. This decorative and easily grown plant is evidently coming into favor locally, though a fungus disease of European origin has found its way to this country. The present summer, however, has not proved favorable to fungus development, hence the recent exceptionally fine display of white, red and pink tinted flowers.' (The Leader, 28 January 1905)

Here in Ballarat, hollyhocks can still be found gracing the old miners' cottages, colonial homes, as well as modern suburban gardens, and today's hollyhock flowers are as beautiful as ever. What then, of the rust that has never stopped waging war with this lovely plant? It can be treated, but prevention is always better than a cure: grow hollyhocks from seed, not divisions or cuttings; try rust-resistant strains; don't plant too close together; allow plenty of airflow; mulch well to keep the humidity low around the base of the plant; and water the roots, not the leaves. In spite of the hollyhock's ongoing susceptibility to rust, I am very thankful that we did not altogether lose this beloved and venerable plant from our gardens, and I am hopeful that new generations will bring ever-increasingly robust varieties. Perhaps hollyhocks may never return to the same heights of popularity they enjoyed in their Elizabethan and Victorian heydays, but they are nonetheless survivors, and are here to stay.

In the Sichuan province of China where it has been growing for thousands of years, the hollyhock has come to symbolise a virtue we can truly associate with this resilient plant: persistence. The closing words of a poem on hollyhocks by a fellow country Victorian during the Second World War ring equally true:

'Tis but a simple homely flower, yet sends a message clear: to bravely meet the ills of life and face them without fear. (M.A. Vanstron, Ararat, 1940)

1 comment

  • Hi,
    My wife has a number of Hollyhocks growing, and all in their first year. 4 are over 4 metres. The tallest just measured is 4.970 m, with a potential for a bit more growth..
    We live in Chermside, Brisbane. QLD.
    James Polmeer

    James Polmeer

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