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Whether you are a casual weekend gardener or cultivate an elaborate cottage garden or English garden, there's likely a place in your landscape for the old-fashioned favorite, Hollyhock.  Easy to grow from seed, Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea "Summer Carnival" pictured here) have been favorites of gardeners for hundreds of years due to their large size, showy flowers, and easy cultivation.  Growing quickly (after a waiting period) up to 12 feet and even higher, Hollyhocks make good back of border plants, screening plants, or even focal points in the landscape. 

Hollyhocks are closely related to Hibiscus, Rose of Sharon, and okra, other well-known members of the Mallow family, all of which grow to good-sized plant specimens with similar flowering habits.  As Biennials or short-lived Perennials,  they will not flower in the same year the seeds are planted, but rather will form a rosette of leaves in the first year, and then zoom upward and flower surprisingly quickly in late spring or early summer of the next year.  Use anywhere that a background, screen, or tall accent plant is needed.  Highlight a front door or garden entryway for impressive impact, or to soften the line of a fence.  Use as a screen or divider to hide a neighbor's yard, telephone pole, or utility area, or plant in front of a deck to screen the barren area underneath.  Plants reseed themselves readily, and as such, once the first year is over, there should be a continuous supply of ready-to-bloom plants in any particular year once the plants are started in an area. 

Red is the most common color for Hollyhocks, but many more colors are readily available to the average gardener today, including yellow, purple, white, and pink variations, as well as near black.  The single or double flowers spring forth from large buds attached to short stems, which in turn are attached to the main stem. The buds alternate all the way up the thick and somewhat hairy main stem to the very top, which can be way up there (the one pictured is about 10 feet and still going up). Strong side stems also emerge, also covered with buds for a long-lasting show indeed (see full-plant picture below).  Each bloom lasts for a few days, and the entire blooming period is maybe 6 weeks or better.  Stems are straight and strong, and don't usually require staking in normal weather, but have been known to  topple in heavy rain or storms. 

As far as problems with diseases and insects, Hollyhock unfortunately has its share, and in fact is famous for Hollyhock Rust.  Basically, if you grow Hollyhocks, you will have Hollyhock rust to some degree.  Hollyhock Rust is a fungus that is spread by insufficient air circulation, overhead watering, and rain.  It looks like red or orange bumps on the undersides of the leaves early on, and then advances, destroying leaf tissue as it goes.  The more wet and humid it is, the worse the problem will be.  Some gardeners refuse to grow Hollyhock because of Hollyhock Rust, but look again at the pictures above and you might rethink that.  Yes, the rust is ugly but it probably won't kill the plant unless the plant is already stressed by underwatering or disease.  Good gardening practices can keep it somewhat in check, so if you want to grow Hollyhock, make sure you mulch heavily to keep soil from splashing on the leaves, water from below when possible, and clip the lower leaves regularly.  Rust starts from the bottom and works its way up, so as soon as you see lower leaves starting to decline, clip them with garden shears and throw them in the trash (not the compost heap lest you infect other Mallows).  No matter how hard you try, you will never completely control rust on Hollyhocks, so if you love these plants as much as you should, you will just resign yourself to taking the good with the bad, and hope that science will breed a Hollyhock that is immune to rust soon. Slugs, weevils, and caterpillars like this plant too, so by the end of flowering, you might just find yourself with a skeletonized stem with flowers on it, but again, sometimes in gardening, you have to take the good with the bad.  Hey, you still have the flowers at least.  This year, we have had a drier than normal spring (drought really), and it hasn't been as humid.  My plants are really faring quite well considering, as you can see in the full-plant picture to the right.  Again, this one is about 10 feet tall and is really pretty gorgeous, with only minor damage so far to the bottom-most foliage. . 

So, if you still want to grow Hollyhock even knowing the pitfalls, seed is easy to start.  Just clear some ground in full or near full sun and scatter seed, covering only very lightly, as seeds need some light to germinate.  Alternatively, you can start the seed in flats with potting soil and transplant later with good results.  Seed takes 14-21 days to germinate and about 365 days to bloom for most varieties.  Once seedlings are up, thin plants to no closer than about 12-14 inches.  These plants can be deceiving, as when they are in the rosette phase in their first season, they are quite small, so be careful not to space too closely or you will aggravate the problems described above. Average garden soil is good enough for this plant, but a good covering of mulch is a must, both to keep the ground evenly moist and to eliminate splashing from watering and rain.   Once the plant has finished flowering, you can either cut it to the ground or let it stand for a while until the seed pods mature and split, dispersing new seed on the ground.  In some climates, the plant may re-form underneath the cut in the stalk for a new plant next year.  Hollyhock will often sprout where you don't want it next season if you let the seed pods disperse seed where they want to, but seedlings transplant easily and this shouldn't be a problem for a halfway well-tended garden.

If you have kids and a little bit of room in the yard, try building them a Hollyhock House (Sunflowers work well for this too).  Simply plant your Hollyhock seeds in a circle, square, or whatever shape leaving an opening about 5 feet wide for a door with easy access in and out, and let the Hollyhocks grow.  Kids love to feel that they have a private space in nature to play or just get away.  Some people put stakes around the inside perimeter and tie string from one side of the door around the back, and up to the other side of the door to make it seem more like a room, but this is optional.  I wish I had room to do this on my property so I could take a picture, but alas, I do not.

If you have little girls, try making Hollyhock dolls.  Just choose a flower and cut it off, bud and all, then choose two more buds, cutting them off at the stem.  Using toothpicks, attach the skirt (flower), body (one of the buds), and head (second bud) and then stick a toothpick through the body sideways to make arms as depicted in the picture. Paint eyes in the appropriate place with a thin marker and poof, you have a Hollyhock doll.  Yeah, I know I could have centered the arms on mine a little better.  Picky, picky, but she's still kinda cute and she has a dress to die for. Also, if you have single flowers, you can float these beauties in water, so make a few and watch them dance!

And lastly, if you haven't had enough Hollyhock for today, this plant is a minor herb too!  Good heavens, you can grow a fort, play dolls with your kid, screen out the ugly neighbors, and self medicate all with the same plant!  Although there is a long history of Hollyhock usage for various complaints from mouth problems and loose teeth to gonorrhea, the plant today is used by herbalists mainly for cold and cough related health issues.  The plant indeed contains a substance that appears to soothe inflamed mucus membranes, and the leaves (or preferably the root) boiled in water and drunk as a tea is apparently a safe and reasonably effective remedy for minor cold and cough symptoms.  There are no known drug interactions related to ingesting any of the mallow family plants, including Hollyhock.  For complete herbal tea-making instructions, click here.

 

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