Sunday, August 25, 2013

The common hollyhock

Common hollyhock Alcea rosea
The common hollyhock is indigenous to southwestern China. It was brought to Europe in the 15th century or even earlier. It was originally named ‘holyoke’ from which name the current name hollyhock is derived.

The original name was given to it by William Turner, a 16th century English Anglican cleric and natural historian who studied medicine in Italy.

Until today, the hollyhock, which is a member of the mallow family, is grown mainly as an ornamental plant for its large flowers. In Malta it can sometimes be found growing wild often close to human habitation. It is thus considered as a rare alien species.

In Maltese it is known as bastun ta’ San Ġużepp meaning St Joseph’s walking cane.

The hollyhock has been used medicinally and is edible. I have never tasted it but it is said that it does not have a good taste. The flowers are emollient, demulcent and have diuretic properties. These properties are similar to those of other members of the mallow family.

About sixty species of hollyhock are known to exist. Most of them are found in Asia and Europe.

 They can be annual, biennial or perennial plants and they usually grow vertically without much branching. The flowers are formed on an erect stalk hence the common hollyhock’s Maltese name.

The seeds germinate very easily but the seedlings attract snails and slugs. In a pot or in a garden it would be easy to protect the seedlings from snails and slugs but in the wild few of the seedlings would manage to survive and grow. This probably explains why this species is not more widespread in the countryside.  The slugs and snails are a form of biological control and stop this alien species from taking over the countryside. Other alien species such as the cape sorrel (ħaxixa ngliża) and the castor oil tree (siġra tar-riġnu) are not kept in check naturally and have taken over large parts of the Maltese countryside to the detriment of indigenous species. 

This article was published in The Times of Malta 10 July 2013

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