Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

QUERY: Hollyhock lore

Posted on by royvickery |

Hollyhock (Alcea rosea) can be considered to be an archetypal cottage garden plant, which features on numerous paintings and embroideries of idealised rural gardens.  But it appears to have attracted little, or no, folklore, and very few alternative names. Macmillan in his Popular Names of Flowers, Fruits, etc. (1922) lists five names, three from Somerset: billy buttons, Jacob’s ladder and rose mallow, and two unlocalised: hock-holler and holly-anders.  No other compilers of dictionaries of local plant names mention the plant.

Other names, or folklore concerning hollyhock, would be appreciated; please send it to

Responses:  1) According to Beth Steiner Jones, writing in July 2019, about Hampton Hill, Middlesex, in the 1950s, hollyhock ‘pollen was called bread, but I think that was just descriptive; I never heard of it being eaten’.

2)  Note from Dr W.M.S. Russell, of Reading, 1982: ‘I was informed several times by the late Mr William Taylor, then of Reading, Berks, between 1966 and 1978 … that his wife would never have hollyhocks in the house, because they contain earlywigs (sic. = earwigs).

3) Thanks to Jane Lawson who in July 2022 brought to our attention the following Twitter post: ‘It is said that hollyhocks once grew abundantly on Holy Island (Lindisfarne) [Northumberland] the home of the seventh-century bishop, St Cuthbert. They were known as St Cuthbert’s cole and centuries later as holy hoc (hoc = mallow) for their association with Holy Island’.                                                               It seems possible that the Lindisfarne ‘hollyhock’ was, in fact, tree mallow (Malva arborea) which was reputedly grown in similar places for its medicinal uses.  Thus it was known as Bass-mallow on Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth in the seventeenth century, where ‘its leaves would have been used as a bandage or poultice for the garrison of the fortress’ [Transactions of the East Lothian Antiquarian & Field Naturalists Society, 28: 110, 2010].

Images: upper, cultivated, Hinton St George, Somerset; July 2017; lower semi-naturalized, Salisbury, Wiltshire, July 2022.

Updated 28 July 2022.

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