A cottage garden without hollyhocks is unthinkable. We associate certain flowers, including hollyhocks, with old-fashioned gardens surrounding cottages. Hollyhocks often symbolize cottage style—usually informal and densely planted beds with herbs and vegetables as well as blowsy flowers. Examples are Childe Hassam’s late-1800s painting of Celia Thaxter’s garden on the Isles of Shoals in Maine or Gertrude Jekyll’s gardens in Surrey, England, painted by George Elgood.
Common hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) belong to the Malvaceae family, along with cotton (Gossypium), marsh mallow (Malva), and okra (Hibiscus esculentus). A central column of joined stamens and a hairy five-part stigma distinguishes their hibiscuslike flowers. Each flower stem bears 10 or so blooms that range from white, cream, and pale yellow through pinks and reds to deepest purple or almost-black ‘Nigra’. Strains with single flowers include hybrid ‘Happy Lights’ in mixed colors and ‘Indian Spring’ mixed. Double-flower strains, such as ‘Chater’s Double’ in mixed colors, dwarf ‘Majorette’, and ‘Peaches ’n Dreams’ are available, too.
History: Hollyhocks have been around for a long time. Their seeds were identified in the grave of a Neanderthal man who lived about 50,000 years ago. It is believed the Crusaders brought hollyhock seeds, native to China, to Great Britain, where they are still widely grown. Children love to plant hollyhocks to make secret houses or to make hollyhock dolls from the flowers.
Starting hollyhocks: Short-lived as perennials, most hollyhocks are treated as biennials, seeded in summer to bloom the following spring. Annual strains, such as Summer Carnival Mix, bloom in a few months if the seed is sown six to eight weeks before the last expected frost date. Sow seeds in individual pots or cell packs, just covering the seeds with soil or even pressing them into the surface. Keep them moist at about 70°F until they germinate, probably two to three weeks. Otherwise, you can start groups of seeds outdoors after the last frost; these plants will overwinter and be ready to bloom the next spring.
How to grow: Set out young plants after frost, 2–3 feet apart, because the mature leaves are large. Plant in full sun and average, well-drained soil and supply enough water so the plants do not become stressed. The tall spikes of single flowers are sturdy, but the ruffled flowers of double strains become waterlogged after rain, so staking the plants is prudent. Unless you plan to save seeds, cut spent spikes to the ground. Hollyhocks self-seed freely, and although individual plants might be short-lived, young plants will replace any that have died. Rust fungus is the worst problem that plagues hollyhocks. Fast-spreading, it manifests itself as small orange-red blisters on the undersides of the lower leaves, which should then be removed and destroyed. Avoid wetting the leaves and ensure plenty of free air movement. Handpick Japanese beetles before the flowers become holey.
Common name: Hollyhock
Botanical name: Alcea species, especially A. rosea, hybrids, and cultivars
Height: 4–10 feet tall
Bloom time: Late spring through fall
Hardiness: Zones 2–10
Conditions: Hollyhocks prefer full sun and good air movement. They thrive in humus-enriched soils that drain well but do not dry out unduly. Transplant when young to avoid damaging the strong taproot.
Best feature: Hollyhocks’ stately flower spikes evoke old-fashioned gardens around thatched cottages. They look lovely lining a white picket fence or stone wall for old-world charm.
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