A Tall, Dark Stranger

I have a romantic story to tell you, of a tall dark stranger that first appeared in European gardens almost a millennia ago – althea rosea, the hollyhock. But not just any hollyhock, the dusky mysterious one the Spanish called, El Sereno, the Night-Watchman.

The history of this magnificent specimen is as cloudy as the flowers are dark. Reportedly originating in the Far East, the plant was first documented in the Middle Ages, appearing in European gardens about the time of the Crusades. In fact, Alice Coats, in her seminal Flowers and Their Histories, theorizes that the name derives from the Anglo-Saxon “hoc,” meaning mallow, and “holly“, holy, a reference to the flower’s ubiquitous presence in Palestine. Immediately prized for its colorful blossoms – and for host of rather dubious medicinal uses – the hollyhock quickly spread throughout Europe, first mentioned by name in John Gardiner’s Feate of Gardening (1440). Thriving in dry climates, it became a particular favorite of the Spanish, who introduced it to Central & South America; the English later latter followed suit in the Colonies, and ‘Black Watchman’, or a variety close to it, was grown by Thomas Jefferson. Somewhere along the way, it was discovered that the plant made a particularly fine dye, comparable to indigo, and dark varieties, like the ‘Black Watchman’ (a.k.a ‘El Sereno’, ‘Night-Watchman’, etc.)  were developed with that use in mind. Unfortunately the hollyhock’s commercial reign was short-lived – its great bane, hollyhock rust,  first mentioned about 1873, put a quick end to any ideas of large-scale production.

Still, that shouldn’t dissuade you from growing this handsome plant, because few other flowers have anywhere near the effect in the garden, especially when placed in front of lighter pinks and yellows. Viewed close up, the flowers are dark, dark purple, but from a distance appear almost black, hovering in the back of the border like slim exclamation points bracketing other of your less dramatic horticultural triumphs. As for the rust, if you live in a dry climate, it’s less of a worry; where humid, a spurt of any common fungicide once or twice a season, organic or not, will generally handle the problem nicely.

Technically a biennial, hollyhock will often reseed itself, creating successive seasons of bloom. However, I find that mine peter out, so every few years I buy some new seed to reinforce my supply, starting them in pots about now for next year’s flower.

After all, who can object to a tall dark stranger now and then?

‘Black Watchman’ is available from Renee’s and other specialty retailers

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