The Hollyhock Flower: Meanings, Symbolism, and Folklore

Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) are a popular old-fashioned flower that once adorned flowerbeds across rural America. In the language of flowers, hollyhocks symbolize the circle of life, ambition, fertility, and abundance. Traditionally, they were planted near the front door of homes to demonstrate prosperity and near outhouses in gardens as a form of privacy. Egyptians frequently placed wreaths of hollyhocks with the mummified to help them in their journey to the afterlife.

Hollyhock Flower Meaning, Popular Types, and Uses

Etymological Meaning

Traditional sources say the hollyhock derives its name from the Old English word holi, meaning holy, and hoc, meaning mallow, but other explanations are worth considering. According to legend, the hollyhock got its name because it was brought from the Holy Land.

In addition, the Crusaders used hollyhocks to make a salve to treat injuries on their horses’ hind legs, called hocks. The name “Hollyhocks” is believed to be a fusion of “Holy,” paying homage to the sacred Holy Land, and “hock,” a nod to its reputed healing powers for the hind legs of horses.

The Victorian Language of Flowers

In the Victorian language of flowers, known as floriography, hollyhocks hold symbolic meanings related to ambition, fertility, and abundance. Hollyhocks were often planted near homes and in cottage gardens, not only for their striking appearance but also as a symbol of the home’s prosperity.

In floriography, giving someone Hollyhock flowers could encourage them to pursue their ambitions or a congratulatory gesture for an achievement.

The “Outhouse Flower”

Rustic hollyhock flowers in bloom next to an old building in a garden

Hollyhocks have earned the nickname “Outhouse Flower” due to their practical and historical gardening use. In the past, especially in rural areas and cottage gardens, hollyhocks were commonly planted near outhouses. There are a few reasons for this tradition:

  1. Privacy: Hollyhocks can grow quite tall, often reaching heights of 6 to 8 feet or more. Their height made them a natural choice for planting around outhouses to provide a visual screen and increase privacy.
  2. Beautification: Outhouses were basic structures that weren’t always visually appealing. Planting hollyhocks and other tall, flowering plants around them helped to beautify these necessary but not particularly attractive parts of a home’s outdoor space.
  3. Marker: Before indoor plumbing was common, outhouses were situated some distance from the main living quarters. Planting conspicuous and attractive flowers like hollyhocks nearby made it easier to locate the outhouse, especially at twilight or in the dark.

Color Symbolism

Hollyhocks varied colors, ranging from white and yellow to pink, red, and purple, also allow for nuanced expressions of emotion and sentiment within this symbolic context.

Red Hollyhocks

Red Hollyhock Flowers in bloom

Like many red flowering plants, a red hollyhock symbolizes a deep symbolic connection with love, romance, and passion. 

Purple Hollyhocks

Purple Hollyhock Flowers growing in a garden

A purple hollyhock represents charm and grace but can also symbolize a transition. Purple is often a regal color, symbolic of royalty, tradition, and standing.

White Hollyhocks

White Hollyhocks Flowers in bloom

Like many traditional white flower meanings, a white hollyhock symbolizes innocence, purity, honesty, and fertility. 

Pink Hollyhocks

Pink Hollyhocks growing in a garden

A pink hollyhock symbolizes sensitivity, love, and thoughtfulness. 

Yellow Hollyhocks

Yellow Hollyhock Flower in bloom

A yellow hollyhock symbolizes friendship, trust, and respect.

Ancient Egypt

In ancient Egypt, they laid to rest mummies with hollyhock wreaths, believing that these floral adornments would guide them on their journey through the afterlife.

Fairy Folklore

In the enchanting world of mysticism, hollyhock flowers were whimsically regarded as the skirts worn by flower fairies, with the seed head earning the delightful nickname “fairy cheese” due to its resemblance to a generous wheel of cheese.

The folklore suggests that the tall, sturdy stalks of hollyhocks, with their large, colorful blooms, provide the perfect structure for fairies to climb and play on. The flowers’ wide-open petals are comfortable beds or elegant gowns for these mythical creatures, making hollyhocks an essential feature of any fairy garden.

Art and Literature

Hollyhocks have been featured in various artistic works, particularly in paintings. One notable artist who depicted hollyhocks is Vincent van Gogh. In his painting “Hollyhocks,” van Gogh captured the tall, elegant form of the flowers with his characteristic bold strokes and vibrant colors.

Impressionist and post-impressionist artists, in particular, were drawn to garden scenes and the beauty of cultivated nature, with hollyhocks often appearing due to their dramatic height and the range of colors they offer.

In literature, hollyhocks are sometimes used to evoke a sense of nostalgia or the simple beauty of rural life and cottage gardens. Hollyhocks also appear in children’s literature and fairy tales, where they are associated with fairies and magical creatures.

Suitable Gifting Occasions

Hollyhocks are suitable for various gifting occasions, including housewarmings, promotions, graduations, thank-you gestures, and birthdays. In my experience, the fresh cut flowers don’t have the longest life compared to other flower types, but they can be a lovely gesture for those that appreciate a little Victorian charm.

Fun Facts About Hollyhocks

Hollyhock flowers, with their statuesque presence and range of vibrant colors, are a favorite in gardens worldwide. Here are some fun facts about these beautiful blooms:

  1. Historical Significance: Hollyhocks have been cultivated for centuries and were popular in Chinese and European gardens as far back as the 15th century. They were used not only for their beauty but also for their medicinal properties.
  2. Symbol of Fertility: In some cultures, hollyhocks are symbols of fertility and abundance due to their prolific seed production and ability to reseed themselves in the garden.
  3. Rust Resistant Varieties: Hollyhocks are susceptible to a fungal disease known as rust, which can mar their leaves with orange spots. However, plant breeders have developed rust-resistant varieties, helping gardeners enjoy healthier plants.
  4. Biennial or Perennial: While often grown as biennials (completing their lifecycle in two years), many hollyhocks are actually short-lived perennials. With proper care, they can return for several years.
  5. Cottage Garden Staple: Hollyhocks are quintessential cottage garden plants. Their tall spikes of blooms add height and drama to garden borders.
  6. Attracts Pollinators: The flowers are a magnet for pollinators, including bees and butterflies, making them a beneficial addition to any garden focused on supporting local wildlife.
  7. Wide Range of Colors: Hollyhocks come in lots of colors, from pure white and soft pink to deep red and vibrant purple.
  8. Tall and Stately: Some hollyhock varieties can grow up to 8 feet tall or more, making them excellent as natural screens or backdrops for lower-growing plants.

Wrap Up

Hollyhocks are reminiscent of cottage or kitchen gardens and can be incredibly endearing if passed on from generation to generation. What’s more, they’re also rich in meaning and symbolism, conveying sentiments of life, ambition, fertility, and abundance in the language of flowers.

Editorial Director | andrew@petalrepublic.com | Full Bio

Andrew is the Editorial Director at Petal Republic. He holds a BSc degree in Plant Sciences and has trained professionally at leading floristry schools in London and Paris. In amongst overseeing a global editorial team, Andrew's a passionate content creator around all things flowers, floral design, gardening, and houseplants.

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