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Hollyhocks (Alcea spp.) Part 4: Simplicity

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The Holihock disdains the common size
Of Herbs, and like a tree do’s proudly rise,
Proud she appears, but try her, and you’ll find
No plant more mild, or friendly to mankind
She gently all obstructions doth unbind.

Abraham Cowley

Every part of a hollyhock is worth looking at, from the first sprouting leaves to their full abundance; from the rising stalk to the buds; from the opened flower to the fat, satisfyingly seed-packed pod.

This single, pale-pink hollyhock is one of the simplest I grow. Maybe because of that, I never get tired of it, though (as is the sad way of human beings) I tend to take it for granted just because it is so trouble-free and reliable.

But the pale, illuminated opening buds are as fine a flower as you’ll find anywhere.

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I start my hollyhocks in the fall, since they seem to take awhile to germinate. (This is true of most perennials; probably a survival mechanism. Annuals, which have to grow from seed every year, seem to be in more of a hurry to sprout.)

In my area, starting seeds in fall means they are more likely to stay moist all the time and not fry. It’s just easier than hovering over the seeds with a watering can, and, to be honest, it’s a lot easier than slapping myself on the brow because I’ve just shriveled yet another seedling from forgetting to water for one day.

By starting in the fall, I get a full-sized plant the next blooming season. I’m not sure how this would pan out in colder areas (I’m in zone 8, which means we get freezes, but only rarely a hard frost.) Hollyhocks are hardy plants, so it seems to me that it could work to plant seed in late summer or early fall, even in cold areas. As Gerard said hundreds of years ago, ” The second yeere after they are sowne they bring forth their floures…” Fall sowing means that the second year comes more quickly.

If you start a hollyhock in spring, it may not be fully ready to bloom until late that season. You may even have to wait until the following year. But it will be worth it!

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Whenever I see a flower with a bee in it now, I think of Barbee’s blog–her avatar is a pink mallow-looking flower (Zebrina?) with a large bee right in the middle of it. A gardening friend of mine says that she finds bees passed out in her hollyhocks, drunk with nectar. This one was only visiting, and if it passed out, it did it discreetly.

Hollyhocks also attract butterflies and hummingbirds, so they’re good for all of these flying pollinating creatures whose habitats humans are eroding. So hollyhocks can be a tiny way to help some of the mess we’ve made, and give ourselves pleasure at the same time. If we could think of more things like that, the world would be a better place.

One year, this single pink hollyhock grew something like nine feet tall, in a container. (Since it was in a pot, it’s hard to say exactly, but it towered over a one-story building by at least a foot.) While I thought that was pretty impressive, it was apparently tiny in comparison to some. The 1982 Guiness Book of World Records is said to boast of a 24-foot, 3-inch hollyhock grown in 1961 by W.P. Walshe of Eastbourne, Sussex, England. There’s no photo, though.

Though it might not have reached the heights of some, my single pink hollyhock does tend to grow taller than the others; it’s always one of the most enthusiastic of my hollyhocks, and the one that keeps on blooming at the end of its stalk, even when the others are long gone.

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All my hollyhocks are container-planted (though I give them some pretty serious containers), and they don’t get special treatment. I foliar feed them once every week or two, and give them dry fertilizer a few times a year. They grow tall and strong, and if they get enough sun, they bloom. Hollyhocks are so tough that they can grow under black walnut trees. Black walnuts give off juglone, a toxic substance which usually kills off the other plants in its root range. Deer don’t seem to like hollyhocks, either. That makes them stellar plants for tough situations.

Hollyhock rust (caused by a fungus, Puccinia malvacearum) seems to come on just after the blooms really get going. I’m not sure of the reason for this, and I’m uninclined to hunt around for one. Because hollyhock rust has never seemed to hurt any of my plants. True, it looks less than glorious. But so do the rest of us, at times.

Some gardeners take off the first two leaves of older plants when they return in spring; the theory is that this reduces the number of fungus spores that have overwintered in the plant. Others spray with lime sulfur to keep it from spreading. But, apparently, there is no cure for the disease.

While I like a prosperous-looking garden as well as the next one, I just can’t get worked up over imperfections that aren’t actually harmful to the plants. Death happens. It’s a part of nature. A garden should reflect that. That’s my feeling, anyway, and I understand that that’s also a principle of Japanese gardening. Most of the Japanese gardens I’ve seen are a lot neater than mine, though.

Meanwhile, I take my usual childish pleasure in the round fat seedpods, which don’t remind me of cheeses, but do seem to hearken back to some ancient memory, some old shape of the mind, having to do with fullness, satisfaction, and the entrance into another world.

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References:

Thompson & Morgan

Wuv’n Acres

{ 3 comments… add one }

  • Barbee' August 29, 2008, 7:00 pm

    Pomona, this is a beautiful post (even without my link, that was just icing on the cake). Thank you for thinking of me, and for the generous link. Hollyhocks seem to have been forgotten by most people. ‘Modern’ landscapes do not include them. Thank you for reminding people what charming plants they are. I adore them, so I have greatly enjoyed and appreciated your series.

  • Pomona Belvedere September 2, 2008, 10:19 am

    It’s true, most people in this country seem to disregard hollyhocks. Zoe from England says you see them everywhere there, but you’re right, I think people don’t find them modern or stylish. Their loss!

    I’m glad there are other serious hollyhock fans out there!

  • Leslie June 28, 2016, 6:35 am

    Yes, I was under the impression hollyhocks are biennial, so if you’re lucky enough to get the foliage one yr, they’ll flower the next.. Hopefully you will have a continuous blooming every yr.. I have the almost blood red.. LOVE THEM!

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