The hollyhock, according to seed catalogues, is a tall, dramatic, old-fashioned accent of mid summer. It can serve as a buffer or background in the garden or landscape. It has statuesque flower spikes. It has an intriguing history. It attracts hummingbirds and butterflies — in fact, it is the primary host plant for the Painted Lady butterfly, which uses its feet to taste food.
These are all valid reasons to include this versatile plant in the garden. But the No. 1 reason is its ability to evoke nostalgia — it is truly a sentimental flower. Most gardeners say they grow it because it reminds them of people and places from their past, most often a grandmother and her garden. Not only was the hollyhock in the garden long ago, it also flourished near barns and chicken pens and along roadside split-rail fences.
And as fellow gardener Susan Randolph remembers, “I was taught to look for the hollyhocks to find the outhouse when visiting other homes.”
Hollyhock (alcea rosea) is a member of the hibiscus family and a cousin of cotton, okra and rose mallow.
Of Asian descent, the plant was brought to England during the Middle Ages by the Crusaders, who used it to make a salve to rub on their horses’ injured hind legs (also called hocks) to reduce swelling, according to legends. Thus, the name holy (as in Holy Land) and hock as the part of the horse treated with the plant.
Other common names were Joseph's Staff, an endearment bestowed by the Spaniards, and Saint Cuthbert’s Cowl, a reference to the hooded shape of the flowers.
During the 19th century, hollyhocks became popular in English working-class cottage gardens, because they were tough plants that required little care.
Long ago, children made “hollyhock dolls” by plucking flowers off the stalks and turning them face down in their hand. Result: with a little imagination you can see the lady wearing a colorful ballroom gown.
Another fantasy was to catch bumblebees.
“I learned that you can’t capture a bumble bee by holding the blossoms shut with your fingers. Well, you can but the bumble will sting you,” Susan recalls.
The hollyhock is an old-fashioned biennial or short-lived perennial that can grow eight feet tall. Hollyhocks have large, showy paper-like flowers shaped like large open bells in shades of red, purple, yellow, salmon, black and, of course, white. Each bloom will remain open three to four days.
The blooms are arranged on a long spike and open in succession starting at the bottom. Flowers measuring three-to-four inches across can be the traditional single or the newer frilled double.
They prefer sun but will grow in some shade in almost any type of soil. Here’s a tip passed along by old gardeners: plants with deep-colored flowers prefer sandy loam, while light colors prefer clay.
Container grown plants that are started in the winter will flower the first season. Seed sown in midsummer out of doors will produce flowering plants the following spring. Individual plants may only persist a few years, but reseeding should keep the plants in the garden
The idea for this column came about because Louisiana sister-in-law Phyllis had tried unsuccessfully several times to grow hollyhocks from seed and sought advice. Why did she keep trying? She wanted to grow them because they were in her grandmother’s garden years ago.
Earlier in the season, I had seen plants at a local garden center and asked sister Rosemary’s assistance in locating one. No need, she said. She and husband Charles had several small plants that popped up from seed in his vegetable garden. So on a recent pass through town, Phyllis got her hollyhocks and discovered almost immediately that rabbits love the tender leaves.
Since then, I have noticed numerous hollyhocks, including an impressive hedge that serves as a sound buffer at a garden on Grand Avenue and in the Officers’ Wives Garden at the Fort Smith National Historic Site and the Learning Fields at Chaffee Crossing.
Rosemary says the key to growing hollyhocks is similar to that of Queen Anne’s Lace and larkspur. In October, drag your rake over your prepared soil and scatter the seed on the surface. Do not cover with soil or mulch. They require some sun to germinate.
Once the little plants are up, thin them to a foot between each plant. Hollyhocks will grow into very large plants. If they are too close together, they will not grow as big or flower as prolifically. Plus, plants that do not have “air space” are more susceptible to rust.
Hollyhocks do have potential problems with rust (a fungal disease on the underside of the leaves than can weaken the plant) as well as spider mites, Japanese beetles, hollyhock sawflies and rabbits who devour the small tender leaves and stems.
Twentieth century Italian poet/novelist Cesare Pavese once wrote, “We don’t remember days, we remember moments.” This is especially true when our memories drift back to grandmother’s hollyhocks.
Next week, the topic will be: bad news — crapemyrtle bark scale is back in town.
Lucy Fry of Fort Smith is a level 4 Master Gardener and writes the area Master Gardener newsletter. Her column, Gardening for the Record, runs weekly in the Times Record. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.