We enjoy having guests over and when visiting our gardens, fewer plants elicit as many questions and positive comments as the variety of hollyhocks we have scattered around our landscape. The show gets better year after year as more plants appear, both from self-seeding as well as seeds we gather from new varieties we see in catalogs or from the yards of friends.
Hollyhocks are related to hibiscus. You might find it surprising to know that Rose of Sharon and okra are all part of the same family as well and you’ll see the family resemblance in the flowers. There are many hollyhock varieties available with varying flower shapes, colors and sizes, as well as differing leaf forms and mature heights. Some hollyhocks can reach 9 feet tall. Most of what we have around our place are in the 5-6 foot height range. They are quite impressive, can be seen from a distance across the property and create great focal points.
Hollyhocks are available in differing growth and flowering types and are old gardening favorites — in fact they were planted in many of the pioneer gardens. There are short, bushy cultivars, along with the more common heirloom towering types. Leaves can be roundish, somewhat like a lily pad leaf, or deeply variegated, almost like a maple leaf. The flowers come in an astounding array of colors and shapes. Colors range from light pastel pinks, oranges and whites, to deep reds, fuchsias, and even shades so deep you think they are black. Petal styles range from single overlapping petals to double blooms, to deeply crinkled forms that almost look like carnations. The flowers tend to last several days before dropping off. No wonder so many people enjoy hollyhocks in their gardens.
These plants have a long blooming season, in our area, going from late spring into mid fall. The blooms show beginning at the bottom of the stalks, and work their way up. They will bloom more readily and longer if they are kept semi-moist. They do not like “wet feet,” meaning the moisture needs to drain away. If planted in an area that is wind-sheltered and surface moisture does not readily evaporate, avoid watering the entire plant — irrigate at the base to avoid any disease. Hollyhocks can be affected by Rust — the fungus, not the chemical reaction affecting metals. By keeping the tops of the plants dry, you will greatly reduce the chance of an infection. If Rust does appear, prune off the lower leaves to keep the disease off the flowers, and reduce watering.
Because they are so tall, they can benefit with being in an area with some wind protection or other plants of similar height to help them withstand wind gusts. They look great in beds of mixed height flowers and provide a great backdrop for the shorter specimens in the planting. In return, the smaller plants provide the hollyhocks with wind shelter and moisture at the base. Because they bloom so profusely and the leaves are a bit scratchy, I prefer to plant them a bit back from walkways. Spent flowers will drop to the flower bed instead of the sidewalk, and encounters with the slightly abrasive leaves are all but eliminated. Besides, they are so sizable and stately they can be viewed from several feet away without diminishing the effect.
Gardening guides will classify hollyhocks as either biennial or perennial, as will seed catalogs. The difference of opinion seems to arise from the fact the plant behaves differently depending on what zone it’s planted in. In my experience, it’s more like a short-lived perennial in our area. A true biennial plant grows stems and leaves the first year, flowers the following summer and dies in the fall. If you cut back a hollyhock to the ground in the fall and mulch, it probably will come back the following season for three or four years. Even if it doesn’t, the plants readily self-seed, so you will have more plants coming along soon. This makes the biennial versus perennial discussion moot, because either way, once you get a stand of hollyhocks established, you will be able to enjoy them for a long time to come.
To help these plants to live several seasons, it helps to deadhead the flowers as the petals drop away, so plant energy is not invested in seed maturation. Once blooming is done, cut the plant to the soil line and mulch it for its winter sleep. Second-year and older plants will not be as vigorous as the new ones, so having a fresh crop coming along at all times is a good practice. Like many plants, they benefit from fertilizer in the spring as well as a good helping of compost at the base.
Because Hollyhock self-seed so readily, they can become mildly invasive. There are two easy ways to address this. First, you can prune off the spend flowers as the season progresses. This avoids having seeds falling to the seedbed for the following season. Second, you can transplant the young plants the following mid spring to another location, pot them and give them away, or dispose of them in your compost pile. If you do wish to transplant them, be aware they do have a strong taproot, so you’ll need to dig a bit deeper and get the whole plant. It’s been my experience that young seedlings transplant much better that more mature plants.
If you are starting from scratch, you can either buy seeds or small rooted plants, typically packaged in growing medium. The rooted plants are more usually available from mail order and internet providers, and seeds are usually sold at local nursery centers. If you are starting with rooted plants, don’t remove the growing medium that adheres to the main root and root fibers. Get it planted and watered in as soon as possible. In our climate, this is best done in the spring. If you start from seed, you will have a greater range of varieties to choose from. You can sow them in a prepared seed bed in the fall, or in the early spring around the first of May. My preferred method is to start the seeds mid-winter, get good seedlings going, and get them in the ground mid-May. Plants should be spaced about 18 inches apart. While you can plant them in rows 3 feet apart, I think they lend themselves to more informality and uneven spacing.
If you’ve got a hollyhock you’re especially proud of, let me know. I’d like to trade some seed from the varieties growing around our place. We’ll both end up richer for it.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his website at dirtfarmerjay.com for videos and articles on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.