The Outhouse Flower

June 25, 2020
Tom Poland

By Tom Poland


I remember Mom talked of a flower with a strange name, hollyhocks. She talked flowers a lot mentioning dahlias, Cape jasmines, which go by jasmines, gardenia, and a fancy scientific name, gardenia jasminoides. She mentioned too another flower with a poetic name, plumbago. The gardenia, it’s said, is the flower of the American South, but I disagree.

I say it’s hollyhocks and here’s why. This beautiful cottage garden plant possesses an association with outhouses. Maybe you could call this pairing beauty and the beast. Why the association with the dreaded privy? The stalks grow tall and they were planted to hide the unsightly outhouse in older times. When people saw a thick grouping of hollyhocks it was like a sign with arrows that said “Restroom.” A shy polite Southern lady need not embarrass herself by asking where the outhouse was. She just looked for the tall beautiful flowers or perchance asked where the hollyhocks were. Hollyhocks put out a faint fragrance, so it wasn’t tasked with covering up the perfumes from the outhouse, we shall say.

Like many plants, hollyhocks possess medicinal qualities and this native of southwest and central Asia figured in folk medicine. Those same qualities led to the plant’s spread to Europe. It came to America with the colonists because of its adaptability.

Biennial, this flowering plant in the mallow family takes two years to complete its growth cycle. The plant grows tall stalks and thus did it find a role as a screen. Got something you want to hide? That old boat and trailer going to pot? Plant hollyhocks in front of it. It worked for the folks using outhouses and it’ll work for you.

Feel like garnishing a meal with hollyhocks? It’s edible. Just don’t spray them with pesticides. And watch out for pollinators too. Bumblebees sure love hollyhocks. Just about any time I inspect my hollyhocks, bumblebees are busy gathering pollen.

I’ve often written about outhouses or privies as some call them. I photograph them too but I’ve yet to see hollyhocks gracing an outhouse. I know of a few history villages that showcase outhouses. Now they need to plant a patch of hollyhocks by them to create the authentic view.

This fall when mine go to seed, I’ll plant them by my fence come spring. That way two years hence my neighbor and I both can enjoy the old-fashion outhouse flower. We can chat over the fence through a screen of colorful hollyhocks and talk about this plant that was once used in rituals for abundance, due to its symbolism of growth and rebirth. In fact it was grown close to English cottages to promote abundance in the household, both in power, wealth, and fertility. Well, all that’s fine and dandy but I just like to look at them and watch the bumblebees fight over them. Tells me all’s right with nature around these parts.


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